National/World

Son helps his parents die

Wednesday, February 04, 2009
California Assisted Suicide Terminally Ill Parents Attorney John West

Attorney John West talked about his stunning secret in a new memoir called 'The Last Goodnights.' (ABCNews Photo)

For attorney and author John West, his parents were lifelong sources of comfort, wisdom and pride.

But West has been keeping a 10-year-old secret about his parents from everyone, including his two sisters, which he is revealing for the first time in a memoir called "The Last Goodnights."

West helped his terminally ill parents commit suicide, a crime in the state of California, where the deaths took place. In revealing his actions, West acknowledges he could face prosecution.

"I'm hopeful that that won't occur, but there is the possibility," West said in an interview that aired on "Good Morning America" today. "The statute of limitations for assisted suicide has run [out] but the prosecutors can charge you with just about anything. There is no statute of limitation for murder, for manslaughter, probably certain drug offenses."

West said that helping his parents to die was something he had to do out of love and, if given the choice, he'd do it again.

"I really didn't have sleepless nights over it because to me, it seemed right," he said. "It was the right thing to do. It was what my parents wanted."

Carrying Out the 'Plan' His father, Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West, was a world-renowned psychiatrist with expertise in brainwashing and cult activities who examined famous patients like Lee Harvey Oswald and Patricia Hearst. His mother, Kathryn West, was a respected psychologist. Friends called them pillars of the community.

"They were full of fun, of life, of joie de vivre," longtime family friend Walter Seltzer said.

Though his parents had been active for most of West's life, their health deteriorated dramatically in the 1990s.

In 1998, Jolly West was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Kathryn West, meanwhile, learned she had Alzheimer's disease.

Jolly West was the first to approach his son about "the plan" -- he wanted to end his life.

John West agreed to assemble a deadly cocktail of pills that he helped his father, who was 74, take on the evening of Jan. 2, 1999.

By morning, Jolly West was dead, his death attributed by everyone except John West to cancer.

'Mind Turning Into Mush' Months later, his mother, who was 75, asked him to help carry out a plan of her own. With a heavy heart, he agreed, telling no one of his role in his parents' deaths, not even his two sisters.

John West said that his mother was depressed at the time and on anti-depressant medication but that she was mentally capable of making the decision.

"As she put it to me, 'I have a right to be depressed. I just lost my husband of 50-some years. I'm...my mind is turning into mush. What's not to be depressed about?'" John West said.

"But she also was a psychologist and a professional and she also was my mother and I loved her, and some things are more important than following the rules that are meant for the greater crowd," he said.

John West said that on the night he and his mother were to carry out the plan, they ate some leftover lasagna and "talked about the good old times."

"And then we all went off to bed and then I slipped into Mom's bedroom and she and I took care of business," he told "GMA."

"You can call it anything you want. It's just words. The point is that it's a personal medical decision."

Crime or Personal Decision? Not everyone agrees that assisted suicide is a personal medical decision.

Around the time that John West was helping his parents end their lives, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist from Michigan, was found guilty in 1999 of second-degree murder for his role in assisting suicides.

Kevorkian served eight years of a 10- to 25-year prison sentence. Upon his release from prison in 2007, the 80-year-old claimed to have assisted at least 130 with their suicides.

Assisted suicide, even if intended as an act of mercy, is still considered a crime in most states. Oregon and Washington have legalized it, and a Montana judge's decision to do so is under appeal.

But even in those states, physicians, not family members, are authorized to help carry out the act, by prescribing a dose of lethal pills to terminally ill patients who have been counseled and who have, in some cases, undergone psychiatric evaluations.

"I think assisted suicide is a slippery slope," said Art Kaplan, a medical ethicist from the University of Pennsylvania. "Despite the fact that this story may in a sense pass ethical muster, killing someone is still homicide."

West said he wrote "The Last Goodnights" hoping that it will spur debate about assisted suicide laws.

"I'm saying I don't want you to ever have to do what I did and don't break the law but change the law," he said. "The law needs to be changed."

While helping his parents end their lives was a painful decision, West believes he did the right thing for them.

"I hear them saying, 'Thank you, Johnny.' And I hear them saying, 'Keep up the good work and you're on the right track. We're proud of you.' And I believe it."

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