"Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer on Wednesday interviewed a man who helped both his parents kill themselves. While talking to John West, the author of "The Last Goodnights," the GMA co-host mostly ignored the right to life angle of assisted suicide, instead focusing on West's actions in aiding, on seperate occasions, the deaths of his cancer-ridden father and Alzheimer's-suffering mother. Many of Sawyer's questions were mild, including vaguely asking, "So, what do you say to everyone out there about whether they, too, should feel that they have a right to do it and should do it?"
She also sympathetically cooed, "In your head, as you fall asleep at night, what do you hear your parents saying to you?" To be fair, Sawyer did wonder if West's mother was capable, mentally, of making the choice to die. But, she didn't follow up when, after saying yes, the author seemed to indicate that society's rules didn't apply to him "And some things are more important than following the rules that are meant for the greater crowd," he asserted.
Sawyer did question if West could go to prison for his actions and explained, "Because, again, the California law is clear. Every person who deliberately aids or advises or encourages another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony." But she didn't challenge him with an obvious point: Some people will think him guilty of murder. How does he feel about that?
Later in the segment, it became clear that West had an agenda larger than just his personal story. He exclaimed, "If there's one great hope that I have, from my book, is that it will be, that it can help spur enough debate and change the laws. So that nobody will ever have to go through what I went through..." But Sawyer had no guest on who opposed assisted suicide. The only dissenting voice was ethicist Arthur Caplan, who mildly explained in a brief snippet: "I think assisted suicide is a slippery slope. Despite the fact that this story may in a sense pass ethical muster, killing someone is still homicide."
If the GMA host wanted to actually challenge West, Sawyer could have read aloud from this excerpt of his book, available on ABCNews.com:
So when they made their wishes clear to me, I wasn't about to argue. I respected my father and mother, and I loved them. And I believe, as they did, in freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy and self-determination—which includes reproductive choice (as the law now recognizes, although it didn't used to), the right to refuse medical treatment (as the law now recognizes, although it didn't used to), and the right to choose death with dignity (as the law does not recognize—not yet—although a few states are getting close).
And what about my mother? K[ay] had midstage Alzheimer's disease, plus osteoporosis and emphysema. Should she have been forced to deteriorate into a walking vegetable, soiling herself, wandering into traffic, hunched over like a crab, and coughing up blood, just because some people say that's how it's always been and always should be?
Since West is clearly advocating for political change on this issue, shouldn't Sawyer have asked some tough questions from the other side? Or at least acknowledged the existence of a political and religious position that opposes assisted suicide?
A transcript of the February 4 segment, which aired at 8:05am, follows:
DIANE SAWYER: And now, a family story about some of the toughest decisions that you can ever face. Imagine your very powerful but aging and ill parents have asked you to help them make an exit from life. Would you do it? What would you say to yourself afterwards? Well, John West has written a provocative new book, telling his side of this story. It's a new memoir called "The Last Goodnights." Two parents with legendary wisdom, pride, and vitality. The father, Jolly West, a world-renowned psychiatrist. Mother, Kay, a respected psychologist. Friends called them pillars of the community.
WALTER SELTZER (FAMILY FRIEND): They were full of fun, of life, of joie de vivre.
SAWYER: But, after all that work, all that activity, their health deteriorated dramatically in the 1990s. 1998, Jolly diagnosed with cancer, given six months. Kay learned that she had Alzheimer's. Jolly West taped a farewell to family and friends before his death. Everyone attributed the death to cancer.
JOLLY WEST (FATHER): As I know, you're thinking about me, if you have to watch this tape. Best of luck to you. And goodbye.
SAWYER: What no one knew is that the father asked something unimaginable of the son. He called it the plan to end his life. John West, an attorney, agreed to assemble a cocktail of pills. On the evening of January 2, 1999, helped his father to take them, one by one. And then, months later, John's mother asked him for the same thing. With a heavy heart, John agreed, telling no one of his role. Not even his sisters. So, who is this son, asked to do these things? And how did he make that decision? Assisted suicide, ethicists say, even if intended as an act of mercy, is still considered a crime in most states. Oregon and Washington State have legalized it. A Montana's judge's decision to do so is under appeal. But even in the state where's it's legal, it is physicians, not family members, who are authorized to carry out the act, prescribing a dose of lethal pills to terminally-ill patients who have been counseled and had psychiatric evaluation.
ARTHUR CAPLAN (ETHICIST): I think assisted suicide is a slippery slope. Despite the fact that this story may in a sense pass ethical muster, killing someone is still homicide.
SAWYER: So, who is this son, asked to do the impossible? And how did he say yes? And the man who made that decision joins us now, John West. First question that comes to everyone's mind, is there a chance you will go to jail for what we have just heard?
JOHN WEST ('THE LAST GOODNIGHTS"):Yes, there is. It's possible. I'm hopeful that that won't occur. But there is the possibility.
SAWYER: The statute of limitations has run, though?
WEST: The statute of limitations for assisted suicide has run. But prosecutors can charge you with just about anything. There is no statute of limitation for murder, for manslaughter, probably certain drug offenses.
SAWYER: Because, again, the California law is clear. Every person who deliberately aids or advises or encourages another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony.
WEST: That's right.
SAWYER: Did you take this into account? You're a lawyer. You took it into account when you decided to go ahead?
SAWYER: Let me go back to the moment you know you are going to do this. How many sleepless nights?
WEST: I really didn't have sleepless nights over it because, to me, it seemed right. It was the right thing to do. It was what my parents wanted.
SAWYER: Two very different sets of circumstances, your father and your mother.
WEST: Very different. With my father, he was dying rapidly. He had maybe a couple of days. Maybe a couple of weeks left to live. And then, he would die of the cancer that was eating him up so rapidly. With my mother, it was the complete other end of the spectrum. She was physically pretty strong. She could still be alive today. But she was so determined not to turn into a vegetable. She said, no.
SAWYER: Was her mind capable of making this choice, though? Was that depression talking?
WEST: Yes, her mind was capable of making that choice, very much so. It, was she depressed? Sure. As she put it to me, I have a right to be depressed. I just lost my husband of 50-some years. My mind is turning into mush. What's not to be depressed about? And she was on antidepressant medications. 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.
SAWYER: I mean what, how did you approach it with her?
WEST: Well, the evening before she and I did what we did, we had some leftover lasagna. Talked about the good old times. Then, we all went off to bed. And then, I slipped into mom's bedroom. And she and I took care of business.
SAWYER: Took care of business is a strange phrase.
WEST: Well, you can call it anything you want. It's just words. The point is that it's a personal, medical decision.
SAWYER: And your last words to your mom?
WEST: I was trying to say all of the good and wonderful and loving things that I could think of because I could imagine her sort of losing consciousness and falling asleep and going into that deeper sleep. Sort of hearing all these nice things that were being said about her.
SAWYER: So, what do you say to everyone out there about whether they, too, should feel that they have a right to do it and should do it?
WEST: If there's one great hope that I have, from my book, is that it will be, that it can help spur enough debate and change the laws. So that nobody will ever have to go through what I went through, because it's terrible-
SAWYER: But, again, to the people out there who think, is the law there to be broken? What do you say to people out there about, don't do what I did? Are you saying do what I did?
WEST: 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.
SAWYER: In your head, as you fall asleep at night, what do you hear your parents saying to you?
WEST: 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. Thank you.
SAWYER: And we know that you have lots of opinions about this. Please write them to us. And this is, if you want to read an excerpt of this "Last Goodnights" go to our website, ABCNEWS.com, such a provocative and important issue.