An analysis of 69 people who died with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian found that only 25 percent were terminally ill and five had no physical problems. It also found that more women than men sought his assistance.
Studies of physician-assisted suicide suggest that terminally ill men over 65 are more likely than women to seek a doctor's help to die. In the Kevorkian analysis, 49 patients, 71 percent of the total, were women.
"We figured that men would be more likely to seek assistance from Dr. Kevorkian. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true," said one of the researchers, Julie Malphurs of the University of South Florida in Tampa.
The analysis was described in a letter published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers only looked at the 69 people who died with Kevorkian's help in Michigan's Oakland County because the autopsies were done by the same medical examiner's office. They ranged in age from 21 to 89.
"We wanted to see what kind of person went to Dr. Kevorkian to help them die and what factors went into them reaching that point," Malphurs said.
Kevorkian has said he helped some 130 people end their lives from 1990 to 1999. He was convicted and sentenced to prison last year for the 1998 death of a terminally ill man whose death he videotaped.
L.J. Dragovic, the Oakland County medical examiner and one of Kervorkian's harshest critics, shared the patients' records and also signed the letter.
Kevorkian's former attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, criticized the report.
"This is nothing new. This is the same analysis he's been making for the last 10 years," said Fieger, adding that Kevorkian didn't require those he assisted to be terminally ill but to be "interminably suffering."
According to the analysis, autopsies determined that 17 of the 69 patients, or 25 percent, were not expected to live more than six months. Autopsies also failed to confirm any physical problems in five people. Twenty-nine percent had cancer; 38 percent had Lou Gehrig's disease or multiple sclerosis.
"It's very clear ... they wanted to die but the reason they wanted to die was something beyond terminal illness," said another university researcher, Donna Cohen.
"It probably had do with some desperation, depression and a sense of helplessness and an inability to control their lives. That part is real. We need to look carefully at how we support people who are living through these things"
She said the analysis could help states considering physician-assisted
suicide legislation. Oregon is the only state where doctors can legally
prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients.