Friday, June 3, 2011

Jack Kevorkian - Death of controversy? Or controversial death?

A controversial man is laid to rest never having completed the work he sacrificed his career for. Jack Kevorkian, nicknamed Dr. Death by the media, died at 2:30 a.m. on June 3, 2011, almost 21 years exactly after he gained notoriety for helping Janet Adkins end her life in the back of his van in a quiet park in Detroit, MI. He spent his life as an advocate for physician-assisted suicide and described it as a compassionate act and a mercy that eased the suffering of terminally ill patients.

Kevorkian was 83 years old when he died after spending the final month of his life in William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, MI. He was admitted on May 18 with pneumonia and suffering from kidney problems. He was diabetic and had Hepatitis C along with a host of other medical conditions. Former attorney and close friend Geoffrey Fieger said in a statement that his friend was too weak to have participated in his own suicide but that he believes Kevorkian would have wanted to had the option been available to him.

Kevorkian was the son of Armenian immigrants Levon and Satenig. His father, Levon, left Turkey in 1912 and arrived in Pontiac, Michigan where he found work in an automobile foundry. His mother, Satenig, fled Armenia during the Armenian Genocide (the second largest attempt to eliminate a population after the Holocaust) seeking refuge with relatives in Paris. She was later reunited with her brother in Pontiac where she met and married Levon.

Jacob, who later became known as Jack, was the middle of three children and an excellent student. He graduated high school with honors in 1945 then went on to study medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor where he specialized in pathology. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Kevorkian began expressing his opinions on euthanasia, openly publishing a series of articles in the German journal Medicine and Law. In 1987, he began advertising his services as a physician consultant for death counseling in Detroit.

In October 1989, Kevorkian was contacted by Ronald Adkins regarding his wife, Janet. She had read about a “suicide machine” Kevorkian had created that enabled a person to end his or her own life through the administration of a lethal injection. Adkins was 54 years old and was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband and her best friend Carroll Rehmke watched as she pressed the button that would release a similar cocktail of drugs to those used when Death Row inmates are put to death.

Adkins suicide was the catalyst for the state of Oregon to pass a law legalizing assisted suicide. It also prompted a Michigan judge to issue an injunction against Kevorkian preventing him from assisting in any more suicides. Despite the court order, Kevorkian went on to assist in 130 more suicides after losing his medical license and before he was convicted of second degree murder and delivering a controlled substance. Washington and Montana have both passed laws legalizing assisted suicide. Thirty-four states have passed laws criminalizing it.

Many of the family members of those Kevorkian helped end their lives are grateful to him for helping ease their loved one’s suffering. While the debate raged in the media and through the courts, Kevorkian’s supporters traveled to Detroit in an attempt to give back to the man they called a hero.

In 1999, Kevorkian was convicted in an Oakland County Circuit Court by Judge Jessica Cooper. The New York Times quoted Judge Cooper as telling Kevorkian, “You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did and dare the legal system to stop you. Well, sir, consider yourself stopped.” She was referring to the videotaped suicide of Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kevorkian gave the tape to 60 Minutes who aired a portion of it during a 1998 broadcast.

Kevorkian’s intention when he gave the tape to 60 Minutes was to force the issue of assisted suicide or euthanasia. Instead, he found himself facing murder charges and having Youk’s family denied as key witnesses. He was sentenced to 10 to 25 years but was paroled after 8 years. He had been denied parole on several occasions before he stopped insisting he would continue to defy laws he felt were unjust and archaic. He stated during an interview in September 2005 that he would only campaign to change the laws instead of actively helping people die and admitted he should have approached the issue from a legal standpoint from the beginning.

When he was released from prison in 2007, Kevorkian was suffering from Hepatitis C, diabetes, and liver cancer. He continued to lobby for the legalization of assisted suicide, calling it a civil right, and even went so far as to run for Congress in 2008. Needless to say, he did not win.

In addition to his medical practice and brief political career, Kevorkian had an artistic side. His oil paintings are on display at the Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, MI and focus on a darker side of humanity. Six of his paintings were released as prints but the original oils are not available for public ownership. Kevorkian also played jazz flute and organ and released an album called The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life. It features Kevorkian and his band, The Morpheus Quintet, playing his original compositions. Only 5,000 copies were released but the reviews have been positive.

I believe all people should be treated with respect regardless of your opinion of their opinions. That being said, I also have a wicked twisted sense of humor. Therefore, I had to share the following Pill-Z video from Foamy the Squirrel. Enjoy!

(Disclaimer: Contains adult language)


  1. After reading your blog, I have to say that if someone has a terminal illness why can't they take their own life? What is the difference between a doctor helping you do it and the person on death row being euthanized? Are they not both the act of taking a life? On the part of the government is it more of the "do as I say not as I do" mentality?

  2. Dragyn,

    Thank you for your response. I agree that the decision to take one's life should be their own. In most cases I view suicide as a cowardly act but in a situation where you find yourself with a terminal illness, particularly one where you will lose control of your faculties and rely on others 100% for care, I believe there is dignity in choosing to go in your own way on your own time.

    When considering this issue, I imagine how I would feel if I were to find out I had a condition such as Alzheimer's disease. Imagine feeling yourself mentally fade away day by day and KNOW it was happening but being powerless to stop it. Imagine being aware of the fact that you can't remember people who seem to know you, places where you've been, or even how to dress yourself or clean yourself after using a toilet. These are indignities I do not wish to experience or put my loved ones through, yet, at this time, I have no legal alternative.

    Makes you think...