You may or may not have heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the man known as “Dr. Death.” But in the 1990’s, he was a hero to some, and the devil to many. A man who made a big impact on the debates surrounding death and suicide.
Whether you agree with his philosophy or not, the questions he raised and the awareness he brought to people suffering from debilitating pain and terminal illnesses occupied a large place in the national conversation and U.S. news in the 1990’s. Many attribute the growth of hospice care in the United States directly to Dr. Kevorkian and his work.
Kevorkian’s Early Background
Kevorkian was a medical doctor- a pathologist who spent the vast majority of his career doing competent, unremarkable work at a series of hospitals. He advocated for assisted suicide as early as in the 1950’s but didn’t pursue the idea until much later.
By the mid-1970’s Kevorkian had become bored with medicine, and moved to California to pursue a career as a painter. He was a passionate, but ultimately unsuccessful artist, who ended up needing to work part-time at local hospitals to make ends meet.
It was in 1984 that a rising number of executions in the United States rekindled Kevorkian’s interest in the death penalty, assisted suicide and more importantly, in the methods and techniques used to put people to death. It was at this point when the doctor became a fierce advocate for assisted suicide, and giving prisoners the ability to donate their bodies, that his work made him a household name.
Working once again in this field, he began consulting with the state of California on a plan that would allow death-row prisoners to die by anesthesia if they agreed to donate their organs for transplant.
New Interest, New Attention
The plan for prisoners was so controversial that Kevorkian, and his ideas, received a great deal of media attention, which he both appreciated and enjoyed. He was personally flattered and energized by the reaction, and his professional curiosity was re-piqued.
In 1987, Kevorkian visited the Netherlands, where he learned about the Dutch policy that allowed terminally ill patients to commit assisted suicide. While there, he also studied the available techniques and methods used for this in the country.
Death Counseling and the Machinery of Death
After his return from the Netherlands, Dr. Kevorkian set up a new medical practice in the Detroit area in a field that he coined “bioethics and obiatry.” The purpose of this practice was to offer suffering patients a look at their options: in other words, death counseling and if appropriate, assisted suicide.
Kevorkian continued to seek the spotlight by sharing his plans with the media. He was clear that his work was unpaid, and that he provided information for terminal patients wanting to end their lives for free.
He was open about how he hoped to help patients, and was happy to display a metal contraption that allowed patients to use the sedative thiopental, along with potassium chloride, to end their own lives.
Kevorkian explained that the choice was always the patient’s, and he insisted on counseling for the patient, consultation with therapists and doctors, and a month-long waiting period.
Putting Death into Action
The first person to take full advantage of Dr. Kevorkian’s services was a woman named Janet Adkins, a teacher who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. On June 4th, 1990, she chose to end her life using Kevorkian’s machine while lying in Kevorkian’s rusty VW van.
After her death, Kevorkian notified the police. Adkin’s family, who had been involved from the beginning, read her suicide note publicly.
This was the beginning of a long string of assisted suicides that Kevorkian facilitated from 1990 to 1998. By his count, he helped 130 people end their lives. He believed it was his mission to take the stigma away from suicide, and help sick people make their own choices.
Many were horrified by what Kevorkian was doing, and the government of Michigan tried to stop him for years.
Several laws were passed by the legislature, only to be overturned by the state’s supreme court. Kevorkian was arrested many times, but would always have to be released, and would go right back to his work. From 1994 to 1997, Kevorkian actually stood trial in the death of four of his patients but was acquitted every time, thanks to the sharp mind of his lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger.
Kevorkian continued to enjoy the attention and spotlight, never hiding what he was doing, but reveling in the way the media followed his career.
Arrogance and Conviction
In 1999, Kevorkian once again stood trial for the death of a patient who he videotaped while committing suicide. In a departure from previous trials, he did not hire Mr. Fieger but instead thought he could represent himself. This was a mistake, and he was convicted.
Kevorkian served 8 years in prison, and in 2007 was set free, as long as he promised to not assist in any more suicides. In 2011 he died in a California hospital at the age of 83 from kidney and lung problems.
Though Kevorkian was forced to give up his practice of helping people die, he changed the national conversation on the subject of death, and likely started the strong movement for hospice- a system in which people can refuse treatment (except palliative care) and have more control over their own deaths.