A Compassionate Ending:
Jack Kevorkian, M.D., is one of the most controversial physicians in the world. He attracted a lot of media attention in the early to mid-nineties due to his outspoken ideas about euthanasia, or “a good death,” and is currently in his eighth year of prison for second degree murder because he assisted with the last wish of his patient, Thomas Youk, who was suffering from ALS.
Dr. Kevorkian graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1952 with a specialty in pathology. He became Chief Pathologist at the Detroit Saratoga General Hospital in 1970. In the early 1980s, Dr. Kevorkian published a series of articles in the German journal Medicine and Law, which outlined his ideas on euthanasia and ethics. Then, in 1987, Dr. Kevorkian began advertising in Detroit papers as a physician consultant for “death counseling.” Between 1990 and 1998 Dr. Kevorkian assisted in the suicide of over one hundred terminally ill people.
In each of these cases, Dr. Kevorkian only assisted in the suicide by attaching the person to one of the euthanasia devices that he designed. The first two deaths were assisted by means of a device called a “Thanatron,” which used a needle and delivered the deadly drugs mechanically through an I.V. The individual pushed a button which released a series of drugs that would end his or her own life. After assisting in these two deaths, in 1993 Dr. Kevorkian lost his medical license.
When Dr. Kevorkian could no longer obtain euthanizing drugs, some other patients were assisted by a device called a “Mercitron,” which employed a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide. It’s important to note that all of these cases were of voluntary euthanasia, because the individuals themselves took the final action which resulted in their own deaths. Dr. Kevorkian was tried numerous times during the 1990s for assisting in these suicides, but in every one of these cases the juries acquitted him. One juror was overheard to say the only thing Dr. Kevorkian was guilty of was being ahead of his time.
Court room conditions changed dramatically after Dr. Kevorkian appeared on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace. The November 22, 1998 broadcast of 60 Minutes featured a videotape that showed a patient in the final stages of ALS receiving a lethal injection from Dr. Kevorkian. Although Thomas Youk had provided his fully-informed consent, and this was a case of voluntary euthanasia, it was viewed differently than his previous cases because Dr. Kevorkian himself administered the lethal injection to relieve his pain and suffering.
Although originally charged with assisted suicide, in the end Dr. Kevorkian went to trial on the charge of first-degree murder and was not allowed any witnesses. Following specific jury instructions for murder, not assisted suicide, the jury convicted him of second-degree murder and the delivery of a controlled substance on March 26, 1999. Dr. Kevorkian remains in prison in Michigan, serving a ten-to-twenty-five year sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. State and local courts denied his appeals and he has been repeatedly denied parole. He has made clear that he will no longer help patients end their lives and will now advocate legislation for this fundamental human right. He considers it a civil right of all individuals. Coincidentally, Dr. Kevorkian’s access to the media was also severed the day he went to prison.
Mike Wallace, the anchor from 60 Minutes who aired the video that was used in the trial that ultimately led to Dr. Kevorkian’s imprisonment, said that he was upset with the conviction and perturbed by his lack of access to Dr. Kevorkian. In a letter to The New York Review of Books in 2001, Wallace wrote about the irony of Kevorkian being silenced while mass-murderer Timothy McVeigh was allowed to make all the statements he wanted to the media. In fact, the request for a lethal injection by a healthy, albeit convicted felon, Timothy McVeigh, was granted almost immediately after he declined appeals of his conviction.
Many people believe that Dr. Kevorkian is not only being treated unfairly, but that this courageous man should be honored as a hero. Despite the U.S. government and medical establishment’s opposition to euthanasia, eighty percent of the public support a patient’s right to die and one in five physicians has admitted to practicing euthanasia at some point in his or her career. Many people also point out the irony in that the government rejects euthanasia but maintains the death penalty with lethal injection. Had Michigan had the death penalty, Dr. Kevorkian could have been sentenced to death for assisting someone who made a voluntary choice to end their own suffering.
Dr. Kevorkian is the author of Amendment IX: Our Cornucopia of Rights, about how the Ninth Amendment to the Bill of Rights of the Constitution grants us rights that most people are unaware of, and are not being properly exercised. It states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Dr. Kevorkian is also the author of a unique diet book entitled Slimmeriks and the Demi-Diet, and a collection of essays, color paintings, poetry, medical research proposals, sheet music, limericks, and cartoons entitled GlimmerIQs. To find out more about Dr. Kevorkian’s books visit: www.glimmeriqs.com. Dr. Kevorkian is also an accomplished artist, whose emotionally-powerful, often surreal, and strikingly well-executed paintings have received critical acclaim. Copies of his paintings are available Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, Michigan. His paintings are now part of the collection of the Armenian Library and Museum of America: www.almainc.org.
Dr. Kevorkian was awarded the Gleitsman Citizen Activist of the Year Award in 2000, and he was the subject of the 2001 documentary film Right to Exit: The Mock Trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Many prominent people have spoken out in Dr. Kevorkian’s defense, and in 2002 he was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. A major motion picture about Dr. Kevorkian’s life, which will be directed by Academy Award winner Barbara Koppel, is currently in production. Kurt Vonnegut even wrote a novel entitled God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian, where he envisions himself as a “reporter on the afterlife,” and bravely allows himself to be strapped to a gurney by Dr. Kevorkian and dispatched–round-trip–to Heaven.
I interviewed Dr. Kevorkian in May of 2006. I was able to do this interview with the generous help of Dr. Kevorkian’s attorney, Mayer Mike Morganroth, and his jury consultant and acting legal assistant, Ruth Holmes, who posed my questions to him in prison and recorded his responses. In the following interview, Dr. Kevorkian discusses his ideas about personal freedom, diet and exercise, why the practice of euthanasia is so important, and how the availability of euthanasia might actually prolong the lives of terminally-ill patients.
David: What originally inspired your interest in medicine?
Dr. Kevorkian: I was interested in a lot of things when I was young growing up in Pontiac, Michigan with my two sisters and parents who escaped the Armenian Genocide. I considered being an engineer. I considered being a lawyer. I decided on medicine because it touches all professions. I also loved languages and taught myself to speak many of them.
David: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with modern medicine and what do you think needs to be done to help correct the situation?
Dr. Kevorkian: The biggest problem with Western medicine is that there is a need for establishing an appropriate system and structure for death with dignity. For those who are facing a terminal illness, who are in irremediable pain and suffering, and wish to exercise their right to die with dignity, a system should be available to them. We also need a more structured and reasonable organ donation and transplant systems. 18,000 people die each year waiting for organs. To help correct this situation there has to be an organized public response and outcry–which I believe is now occurring. The current system has not worked well enough to meet the medical needs.
David: Why do you think it’s so important for physicians to be able to practice euthanasia without the fear of legal prosecution?
Dr. Kevorkian: Medical art and science are entirely secular and serve a dual purpose: to lengthen life and to preserve or enhance its quality. Theoretically both aims are equally important, but arbitrary (and mainly sectarian) bias fostered an obsession to prolong life, no matter how inimical to its quality.
The benefits of medicine permit its practitioners to perform acts that ordinarily are crimes. Thus we condone and even laud surgical mutilation like open heart surgery or organ transplants and tolerate for cancer treatment nearly lethal poisoning with chemotherapy. The resultant quality of life is always subordinate to the chief aim of prolonging it. Why shouldn’t the ranking order sometimes be reversed? Why should we not just as readily praise and support the chief aim of relieving pain and suffering for those with terminal illnesses— humanely, expediently and with certainty—an intolerably low quality of individual life through a medical act ordinarily deemed to be homicide?
As a secular profession medicine is relevant to the full