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Interview with John West

Aired April 1, 2010 - 16:49:00   ET



MAX FOSTER, HOST (voice-over): For 10 years, U.S. attorney John West kept a secret from everyone, including his sisters. In a memoir called "The Last Goodnights," he reveals for the first time that he helped his terminally ill parents commit suicide -- a crime in the state of California, where the deaths took place.

His father, Jolly West, a world renowned psychiatrist, was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. He only had months to live. That same year, his mother, Kay, learned she had Alzheimer's.

With a heavy heart, John West agreed to the unimaginable. In January, 1999, he helped his father end his life. Six months later, he agreed to help his mother do the same. Although an extremely painful decision, West believes he did the right thing. His book reveals the moral dilemma all of us hope we never have to face.

Author and attorney, John West, is your Connector of the Day.


FOSTER: A little earlier, John West talked to me about those incredibly tough decisions that he made. He told me he had published his book to draw attention to the issue of assisted suicides and to campaign for their wider legislation.

I began by asking him how people had reacted, though, when he first told them about his story.


JOHN WEST, AUTHOR & ATTORNEY: I was concerned, of course, that the story would infuriate certain people, perhaps even lead to prosecution of myself. I've been very gratified to discover that upwards of 90 percent, even over 90 percent of the people who have commented in various e-mails and letters and what have you to the news organizations and to myself directly, have all been positive. Everyone really, in their heart of hearts, I think, the vast majority of people, understands that this is right and proper.

FOSTER: Well, people have so many questions for you, because, as I'm sure you're aware, it just raises so many questions. You've been through them all in your mind, I'm sure.

But Keira asks: "After your parents passed, what was your thought process immediately afterward?"

What went through your mind after it happened?

WEST: Immediately after it was mostly a feeling of relief on several levels. First of all, I had been able to help them achieve what they wanted. They wanted to -- to die with peace and painlessness. They didn't want to continue to linger in pain. My mother, particularly, called her condition torture. And I don't think anyone wants to live a long, torturous life and long tor -- and have a long torturous death.

FOSTER: But the key question here, of course, is what they want. And you've talked about that and that's what your parents wanted.

The question people ask is, does that change over time and at the moment of -- of death, is that really what they wanted?

And this is really where Isaac comes in. He says he believes that assisted suicide is a crime and he asks: "How do you distinguish between the ones that actually know what they're asking for and the ones that are too mentally handicapped to know?"

That's the broad question.

But how, you know, how would you know that that's actually what they want when they die?

WEST: Well, that's a very good question. And like most medical procedures, the doctors involved, the caregivers involved, have to be convinced that the patient is making a competent decision. I was convinced that my parents were both very much mentally competent.

In my father's case, it was very clear. He had no mental problems other than the great pain that affects one's mind, in some cases.

My mother's case was a little different, because she had Alzheimer's or some other kind of dementia affecting her. It was in the very early stages and it mostly affected her speech rather than her cognitive ability -- her -- her real thought process. And it was also something that she had talked about -- both of my parents had talked about many times in earlier years, when neither of them was at all ill.

Many medical people, as my parents were, do not want to be medical basket cases at the end of their lives. And they plan and ahead -- plan in advance for that. They plan ahead.

In my parents' case, I had to help at the end because, frankly, neither of them were able to help the other, which they both had assumed would happen.

FOSTER: Michelle M. says that: "Doctors should be the only ones allowed to perform assisted suicides."

Do you think there's anything in that?

WEST: I -- I absolutely agree. I absolutely agree. Because what my parents and I did had to, by necessity, happen in secret, they approached me. I'm their rational lawyer, competent son, able to keep a secret and keep organized and all that sort of thing. And yet it was terribly difficult for me to do this. And it has taken a great toll on me. In fact, it's a decade now and I'm, in some ways, just now getting over the -- the -- the pain and -- and the harm to my -- to my soul, if you will.

I think it very much should be physicians handling this and that's part of what I talk about in my book. Civilians, family members, friends, neighbors, should not have to do this.

FOSTER: You've obviously thought about this in great depth and you're -- you're happy with your decision, but you're human, as well.

WEST: Yes.

FOSTER: And what you did you did. There must be moments when you just sit there and think I got it wrong or maybe some guilt or something that you're not comfortable with.

Are there those moments and how do you feel?

WEST: Actually, no. No, you know, I -- I have absolutely no feelings of -- of guilt. I don't believe for a second that I did anything wrong. My parents and I were very much on the same wavelength. I knew what they wanted. It made sense to me. It was a rational decision. And I have not had a single sleepless night or a second thought ever since.


FOSTER: There you are, John West. It's an incredible story.

Tomorrow, we're revisiting, though, one of our favorite Connectors, who is actress Julie Andrews. We want to find out a few of her favorite things, of course, and what she thinks of modern musical actors. So tune in tomorrow.

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