Jack Kevorkian, the son of Armenian immigrants, graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1952 with a degree in pathology and soon earned the name Doctor Death from his efforts to take pictures of the eyes of dying patients to determine what, if anything, they saw. By the 1980s, Kevorkian had published a number of articles on death and dying and began advertising in the Detroit newspapers as a ‘‘physician consultant’’ for ‘‘death counseling.’’ In 1988, he published ‘‘The Last Fearsome Taboo: Medical Aspects of Planned Death,’’ proposing that people who wanted to die should be allowed to do so in ‘‘suicide clinics.’’
During the 1980s, the idea of a ‘‘right to die’’ began to be accepted by both the public and by the courts. The very first such case, In re Quinlan in 1976, had brought the issue of allowing terminally ill patients to die to the forefront of public opinion; in the Cruzan case (1990), the Supreme Court ruled that while a right to die existed, it could be regulated by the state’s interest in preserving life.
If terminally ill patients on life support had the right to end their treatment and suffering, Kevorkian argued, then sick people who were not on life support ought to be allowed to have a physician assist them in ending their lives. In 1989, using $30 worth of scrap parts, he built his ‘‘suicide machine,’’ and the following year helped Janet Adkins, a fifty-four-year-old Portland, Oregon, woman with early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, kill herself using his machine (consisting of three tubes containing lethal doses of medication, operated by the patient) in his 1968 Volkswagon van near Holly, Michigan. She would be the first of more than 100 people that Kevorkian helped to die, either through use of the machine or, after his medical license was suspended so he could not get the medications, by inhalation of carbon monoxide.
Kevorkian’s methods, disapproved by nearly all respectable physicians, nonetheless touched off a debate over individual autonomy. Suicide was no longer a crime in American jurisdictions, but assisting suicide remained a felony in many states. The AIDS crisis had focused attention of people who wanted to end their suffering yet were not on life support and so could not just ‘‘pull the plug.’’ While Kevorkian and his methods remained on the fringes, more respectable groups and individuals began lobbying for the idea that physician-assisted suicide, similar to what was available in The Netherlands, ought to be a part of the individual autonomy protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The idea of a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, however, was vetoed by the Supreme Court in 1997 in Washington v. Glucksberg.
Despite continued harassment by police, Kevorkian managed to avoid conviction on a variety of charges, because he had been careful not to administer the drugs himself. Then he decided to push the envelope, and on November 22, 1998, the CBS show 60 Minutes aired a videotape, provided by Kevorkian, showing him giving a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, age fifty-two, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kevorkian made it very plain that he expected the police to arrest him and that his trial would make it clear to the American people that physician- assisted suicide belonged among the inalienable rights of man.
At his trial, however, Kevorkian insisted on defending himself and threatened to starve himself if he was sent to jail. On April 13, 1999, a jury found Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to ten to twenty-five years in prison; he would be eligible for parole in six years.
Although Kevorkian apparently failed in his crusade, he did contribute to opening a dialogue on quality of life and a right to death. So far, only one state has decriminalized assisted suicide, and the statistics from Oregon show that relatively few people take advantage of the state’s laws.
MELVIN I. UROFSKY
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited