Jack Kevorkian (born 1928) became known as "Dr.Death," in part, because he assisted many people in committing suicide. Kevorkian considered the right to die to be a basic personal right, having nothing to do with government laws. He felt there could be a time when a suffering person may choose death and that physicians should be allowed to assist.
Jack Kevorkian originally wanted to be a baseball radio broadcaster, but his Armenian immigrant parents felt that he should have a more promising career. So he became a doctor, specializing in pathology. Kevorkian worked primarily with deceased people, performing autopsies in order to study the essential nature of diseases. His parents never imagined that he would be the one to design the first modern Thanatron (Greek for "death machine") nor that he would be the first to help people use this machine.
Kevorkian was born on May 28, 1928, in Pontiac, Michigan. He was raised in an Armenian, Greek, and Bulgarian neighborhood. Kevorkian attended the University of Michigan medical school and graduated in 1952. Kevorkian initially received his macabre nickname, "Dr. Death," for his pioneering medical experiments in the 1950's. He photographed the eyes of dying patients in order to determine the exact time of death. He believed that this precise knowledge would yield valuable information about diseases. Kevorkian served as associate pathologist in three Michigan hospitals: St. Joseph's, Pontiac General, and Wyandotte General. He also worked as a pathologist in some Los Angeles hospitals. Kevorkian was the founder and director of the Checkup Multi-Phase Medical Diagnostic Center in Southfield, Michigan and Chief of Pathology at the Saratoga General Hospital in Detroit. He published more than 30 professional journal articles and booklets, including Prescription Medicine: The Goodness of Planned Death.
As Kevorkian witnessed the suffering of terminally ill patients, he became convinced that they had a moral right to end their lives when the pain became unbearable, and that doctors should assist in this process. To that end, he designed and constructed a machine that started a harmless saline intravenous drip into the arm of a person wishing to die. When the patient was ready, he or she would press a button that would stop the flow of the harmless solution and begin a new drip of thiopental. This chemical would put the patient into a deep sleep, then a coma. After one minute, the timer in the machine would send a lethal dose of potassium chloride into the patient's arm, stopping the heart in minutes. The patient would die of a heart attack while in a deep sleep. The death, according to Kevorkian, would be quick, painless and easy. For a person suffering from the pain of terminal cancer or some other disease, the machine would provide what Kevorkian called a painless "assisted suicide."
First Assisted Suicide
In June 1990, Kevorkian assisted in the first of many physician-assisted suicides. He used his machine to hasten the death of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old woman from Portland, Oregon, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The State of Michigan immediately charged him with murder, although the case was later dismissed, largely due to the unclear state of Michigan law on assisted suicide. By 1999, Kevorkian had been present at the death of nearly 130 people. In each case he made his assistance known to the public, as part of a determined campaign to change attitudes and laws on physician-assisted suicide.
Many agreed with what Kevorkian was doing. On June 21, 1996, during an interview with a Detroit radio station, famed broadcast journalist Mike Wallace said, "I am an old man. I'd be the first, if necessary, to go to Kevorkian." Wallace said he could imagine seeking Kevorkian's services if he were suffering from a painful and lingering disease. "You have the right as a human being to do what you want to do with yourself," said Wallace.
Others disagreed with this opinion. The National Spinal Cord Injury Association opposed assisted suicide because there were better ways around the problem. "Refusing medical treatment is your choice to die how you wish-in your own home with your family or in your hospital bed. Assisted suicide is you giving somebody the power to take your life away. A person is given the power to kill."
Despite constant legal problems, Kevorkian continued to assist with suicides. In 1994, he faced murder charges in the death of Thomas Hyde, who suffered from a terminal nerve illness known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Jurors agreed with the argument that there was no statute against assisted suicide in the state of Michigan, and thus Kevorkian could not be found guilty.
The Kevorkian team of defense lawyers won yet another acquittal. They successfully argued that a person may not be found guilty of criminally assisting a suicide if that person had administered medication with the "intent to relieve pain and suffering," even it if did hasten the risk of dying. Kevorkian was prosecuted four times in Michigan for assisted suicides, and he was acquitted in three of those cases; a mistrial was declared in the fourth.
In 1998, the Michigan legislature enacted a law making assisted suicide a felony punishable by a maximum five year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine. This law went into effect months before a ballot proposition legalizing assisted suicide was defeated by Michigan voters. It closed the loophole on relief of pain and suffering, which Kevorkian's lawyer's relied upon to obtain acquittals. The statute provides that a person who knows another intends to kill himself and provides the means, participates in the suicide, or helps to plan the suicide, is guilty of a felony.
Kevorkian proceeded with what he thought was right, and challenged authorities to arrest and prosecute him. On September 17, 1998 he took the ultimate step in the assisted suicide of Thomas Youk. Instead of asking the patient to press the button to inject the fatal dose of drugs, Kevorkian, after speaking gently to the man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, administered the drug himself. Furthermore, he videotaped the entire event so there would be no doubt of what he had done. He then gave the tape to the television show 60 Minutes. The episode was aired for the whole world to see.
Shortly thereafter, Kevorkian was arrested in Michigan for first-degree murder. In this case, when he injected Thomas Youk with the lethal drugs, he committed euthansia, or mercy killing, not assisted suicide. Kevorkian was also charged under the felony law that bans assisted suicide, which went into effect approximately two weeks before Youk's death. Kevorkian decided to represent himself in the Youk murder trial. On March 26, 1999, he was convicted of the lesser offense of second degree murder by a Michigan jury.
In the maelstrom of opinion created by his beliefs, Kevorkian continued his campaign for legalized physician-assisted suicides. He expected to be arrested, and he often was. He felt he was doing his best for people who were terminally ill and suffering great discomfort. In so doing, Kevorkian raised national awareness of assisted suicide and forced the courts and legislatures to make decisions on this controversial issue.
Further Reading on Jack Kevorkian
Detroit Free Press, March 7, 1997; December 10, 1998; November 21, 1998; March 23-28, 1999; April 12, 1999.
Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization, www.FinalExit.org
Newsweek.com, Jack Kevorkian, Death Wish, http://newsweek.com/nw-srv/issue/14_99a/printed/us/na/na0714_1.htm