When an Alzheimer’s-stricken Gerald Klooster started talking to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Klooster’s son became alarmed.
Dr. Gerald “Chip” Klooster II was convinced his mother and four siblings were pushing his father to kill himself. So he spirited the elder Klooster away to Michigan and asked a judge for custody. His sister, meanwhile, launched her own custody battle in California.
The case could break new ground in the debate over assisted suicide, some legal observers and medical ethicists say.
They say this may be the first time someone has gone to court to prevent a relative from getting help to kill himself, though there have been cases of family disputes over whether to halt treatment of terminally ill patients.
“This is really a new wrinkle as far as I’m concerned,” said Howard Brody, a Michigan State University professor who teaches medical ethics.
“What’s been interesting in most of the (assisted suicide) cases thus far has been the degree of family support and unanimity. I’m not aware of another case where there was this degree of family tension and where it actually got into the legal system.”
The elder Klooster, 69, of Castro Valley, Calif., retired as an obstetrician and gynecologist after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago.
His wife, Ruth, said that after the diagnosis, he occasionally spoke with her about committing suicide to spare his family the sight of him losing his mind and dignity.
“It was so terribly, terribly hard,” Ruth Klooster said. “And the only way that we could see … that he could possibly do this is through a man like Jack Kevorkian.”
Testifying last month in California’s Alameda County, Ruth Klooster said she wrote Kevorkian a letter and joined her husband in several phone conversations with him but did not schedule a visit.
Kevorkian has been present at 26 deaths while pushing his cause of doctor-assisted suicide.
Chip Klooster contends his mother had made an appointment with Kevorkian for late November so her husband could end his life. He testified in Petoskey last week that he feared she and other family members have not abandoned the idea.
“If this man is returned to California, the clock starts ticking,” said Gregory Justis, Chip Klooster’s attorney.
In November, Chip Klooster, who lives in Petoskey, went to Florida, where his parents were visiting friends, and brought his father to Michigan. Other members of the family claim the elder Klooster was abducted; Chip Klooster said his father went willingly.
Ruth Klooster said that her son snatched her husband after she was called to the phone to talk with Chip Klooster’s wife.
Chip Klooster said his father now insists he wants to live. And a lawyer appointed to represent the elder Klooster’s interests agrees.
However, all sides say his illness renders him mentally incompetent.
Ruth Klooster did not testify in Petoskey last week. But in a statement filed with the court Nov. 21, she said, “I have no intention of either ending Jerry’s life or of helping him to end his life.”
Kevorkian referred questions to his lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, who said Wednesday that Kevorkian had talked to the Kloosters but would not have gotten involved in their case.
“Kevorkian would never help a person all of whose family members have not agreed,” Fieger said.
He said Kevorkian also insists people he deals with undergo a psychiatric examination to establish they are competent.
The family discussed the possibility of the elder Klooster’s suicide at a stormy meeting in California in September, according to court testimony. Afterward, Chip Klooster filed a custody petition there, which he withdrew after bringing his father to Michigan.
“I fear for my father’s life,” he said in his Michigan court petition.
Emmet County, Mich., Probate Judge Fred Mulhauser gave him temporary custody while a hearing continues on whether to grant permanent custody. Testimony resumes today.
Last month, the judge in California awarded temporary custody to daughter Kristin Hamstra. But Judge William McKinstry said his order will take effect only if the Michigan judge drops his.
Helen Voorhis, interim director of the Hemlock Society, said the Klooster case shows the need for laws allowing a person to arrange for an assisted suicide to be carried out as his or her faculties diminish.
“Certainly, it points out the need … to communicate with the family and make sure the family members are in agreement,” said Voorhis, whose group favors doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill people who want it.