EARLY THIS SUMMER, CHRISTY NICHOLS and her mother, Rebecca Lou Badger, shared their last moment together in a Michigan motel room. It had been eight years since Badger, 39, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, and she had become increasingly depressed and debilitated. She could no longer walk, was subject to seizures and got through the day only with the help of three prescription painkillers. Ahead, she could see nothing but agony, and finally she sought the only foolproof escape. On July 8 she left her daughter’s home in Southern California, flew with Nichols to Detroit, and checked into the suburban Concord Inn. “Pain excruciating,” she wrote that day in a farewell note to friends and family. “Can’t walk. Excrement all over myself.” There, the next evening, Badger died from a lethal injection supervised by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, 68, the apostle of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
Though Rebecca Badger may have found peace, she left behind an angry debate. For an autopsy by Oakland County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. L.J. Dragovic revealed no trace of MS—which is often misdiagnosed because it can be difficult to confirm. In fact, Dragovic claims that despite her symptoms, Badger wasn’t even sick. “Her lungs were fine, her liver was fine, her kidneys were fine,” he says. “Her central nervous system did not show any evidence of disease. And that includes the brain…and the spinal cord.”
Now Christy Nichols, 22, is left wondering whether her mother’s death was all a tragic mistake. “What if she had something curable?” asks Nichols, a senior majoring in criminology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “She could be leading a normal life.”
To date, no charges have been filed in the Badger case. But her death, plus that of Judith Curren, 42, a nurse from Pembroke, Mass., on Aug. 15, has led critics to question how thoroughly Kevorkian screens would-be clients. Curren, bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome and a muscle disorder known as fybromyalgia—neither of which are necessarily incurable—had a history of depression, as did Badger.
Therein lies the quandary, even for those who endorse euthanasia as a last resort. To qualify must one be terminally ill? Or is it enough to suffer with no hope? Finally, who is to judge?
Since Kevorkian’s first suicide assist in 1990, he has been put on trial three times and has been acquitted three times. He has not lost his passion for battle. He has vowed that even an adverse stand on assisted suicide by the highest court in the land—which has three such cases, including one of Kevorkian’s, pending before it—won’t stop him. “I don’t care what any supreme court says. I don’t care what any legislature does,” he angrily told the National Press Club in Washington on July 29. “I know what’s right, and I’m going to do what’s right.” Prior to Badger, he had participated in the deaths of 32 clients in six years. Since then, he has orchestrated a half-dozen deaths—that of Curren, plus three other women and two men—raising his “assist” total to 39.
Rebecca Badger—No. 33—was no stranger to suffering. At 16, she became pregnant with Christy by Steven Nichols, a welder. The couple married, had a second daughter, Misty, and divorced after two years. Drinking heavily, Badger went to Alcoholics Anonymous in 1982. During this time her children lived in foster homes, with their father, and with their paternal grandparents. It took two years, but Badger sobered up. Says her friend Cecelia Moody, a bartender whom Badger sponsored in AA: “In my times of trouble, she’d read the Bible to me.” Eventually, Badger reclaimed her girls and took a job as a medical technician in Berkeley.
Badger’s medical odyssey began in 1978 with an appendectomy and an abdominal hysterectomy. In 1985 she was diagnosed with cancer of the cervix. After successful surgery, she received more bad news: In 1988, her physician Dr. Johanna Meyer-Mitchell detected what she thought might be signs of MS. In retrospect, Meyer-Mitchell now believes Badger suffered from Munchausen’s syndrome, in which otherwise healthy people, craving attention, complain of pretended or self-induced symptoms. “Looking backward and looking at the autopsy,” she says, “this woman died of a psychiatric disease.”
At the time, Meyer-Mitchell referred Badger to Dr. Michael Stein, a Walnut Creek, Calif., neurologist, who ultimately diagnosed “probable” MS. “She complained of difficulty walking, incontinence, pain, numbness and tingling,” he says. “If this was psychosomatic, she was doing a lot to make life difficult on herself.”
Her symptoms didn’t keep Badger from marrying mortgage broker Fred Riley, now 48, in May 1993. “She was a very compelling woman, very natural, well-spoken, very bright,” says Riley. But later that year, he notes, after Badger began taking Demerol, a potent, highly addictive painkiller, for MS, she began undergoing drastic mood swings—and eventually left him. “She told me later she thought she was a burden,” he says. “It was pretty clear she wasn’t thinking clearly.” The couple divorced in 1994.
Thereafter Badger declined swiftly, losing her ability to walk. Her doctors, meanwhile, had added morphine and the sedative Valium in addition to Demerol. Last January she e-mailed Jack Kevorkian on the Internet, then read his book Prescription Medicide—The Goodness of Planned Death. Nichols, who still calls her mother her best friend, read it too—and gave Rebecca Badger permission to die. “I was wearing a new pair of glasses,” she says. “I looked through them and saw her suffering.” Riley, however, calls his ex-wife’s turn to Kevorkian “just an elaborate cry for help to the wrong guy.”
Over the next few months, Badger spoke at length with Kevorkian and psychiatrist Dr. Georges Reding, his associate. They requested her medical records, which Dr. Meyer-Mitchell sent along to Badger, not knowing to whom they would be forwarded. (When she found out, she says, “I felt lied to and manipulated.”) But Dr. Stein, the neurologist, knew the score: In a fax to him, Reding said explicitly that Badger was “seeking physician-assisted suicide.” Astonishingly, Stein was not alarmed. “I didn’t think she’d do it or that they’d take her seriously,” he explains, adding wanly, “Maybe I should have called or interceded.”
Three weeks before Badger’s death, Cecelia Moody paid her a visit. “She couldn’t walk,” says Moody. “I put her on the floor so she could crawl. She couldn’t drag her legs to crawl. I had to carry her.”
Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s attorney, argues that Badger’s medical records were enough to convince anyone that she had MS. “If they were wrong, then take the doctors’ licenses away,” Fieger fumes. “Don’t criticize Jack. He just accepted what they said, and they said it repeatedly over the years.” But the respected UCLA neurologist Dr. Louis Rosner, coauthor of the book Multiple Sclerosis, argues that since MS is often misdiagnosed, Kevorkian should have sought more opinions. “He accepts anything [patients] bring him as medical evidence,” Rosner says, “and goes ahead with their wishes.”
After settling into the Concord Inn on July 8, Badger, a mother to the end, admonished Christy Nichols to go to law school. They also rented an Al Pacino movie, Carlito’s Way, but Badger slept through it. The next day, just after 7:30 p.m., a smiling Jack Kevorkian appeared. “I felt like there was an angel entering the room,” says Nichols. While Kevorkian and his assistant Neal Nicol—a medical supplies salesman with no license to attend patients—mixed the death potion, psychiatrist Reding interviewed Badger for half an hour and proclaimed her rational.
Finally came the denouement: Nicol plunged three needles into Badger’s right arm, through which the lethal fluid would flow. While her daughter held her hands, Badger hugged a teddy bear, and Kevorkian looked on silently. At Nicol’s cue, the patient tugged a string, releasing the deadly mixture into her veins. It was all supposed to take 20 to 40 seconds, but Badger lingered for almost eight minutes, and as her life ebbed away, she complained of a burning sensation in her arm. When Nichols showed concern, Nicol flashed some gallows humor: “Don’t worry. We’ve never saved a patient yet.”
A moment later, Badger asked her daughter for a final kiss. Within minutes she was dead. “I’m glad I don’t have to see her suffer,” Nichols says now. But she is left to wonder: Did her mother, with her daughter’s approval, do the right thing?
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Detroit, MARC BALLON and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles, LAIRD HARRISON in Concord, Calif., and TOM DUFFY in Pembroke