Rest in Peace Dr. Death
The Life of Jack Kevorkian
The world has put to rest one of the most controversial figures of our time. Whether you agreed with him or not, he forced the American psyche to consider a topic which we defied with abhorrence. Yet slowly, laws are beginning to change. His name is synonymous with death; let's look at his life.
Jacob "Jack" Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Michigan to Armenian immigrants on May 26, 2008. His father Levon was born in the village of Passen, near the ancient Armenian city of Garin, and his mother Satenig was born in the village of Govdun, near Sepastia. His father moved from Turkey in 1912 and made his way to Pontiac, where he found work at an automobile foundry. Satenig fled the Armenian Genocide of 1915, finding refuge with relatives in Paris, and eventually reuniting with her brother in Pontiac. Levon and Satenig met through the Armenian community in their city, where they married and began their family. The couple had a daughter, Margaret, in 1926, followed by son Jacob, who later earned the nickname "Jack" from an American teacher who misread the birth certificate, Jack was followed by a sister named Flora. Kevorkian graduated from Pontiac Central High School with honors in 1945, at the age of 17. In 1952, he graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.
As a student at the University of Michigan Medical School, and later as a resident at the University of Michigan Medical Center, Dr. Kevorkian proposed giving murderers condemned to die the option of being executed with anesthesia in order to subject their bodies to medical experimentation and allow the harvesting of their healthy organs. He delivered a paper on the subject to a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1958.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Dr. Kevorkian temporarily shelved his ideas to engage death for social purposes and pursued a career as a medical pathologist. Though his friends described him as funny, witty, personable and engaging in private, those he met in work and social situations portrayed him as awkward, grim, driven, quick to anger and unpredictable.
He lived an impoverished life, eating little, avoiding luxury and dressing in threadbare clothing that he often bought at the Salvation Army. In 1976, bored with medicine, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., where he spent 12 years painting and writing, producing an unsuccessful film about Handel’s “Messiah,” and supporting himself with part-time pathology positions at two hospitals.
In 1984, prompted by the growing number of executions in the United States, Dr. Kevorkian revisited his idea of giving death row inmates a choice. He was invited to brief members of the California Legislature on a bill that would enable prisoners to donate their organs and die by anesthesia instead of poison gas or the electric chair. The experience was a turning point. Energized by the attention of lawmakers and the news media, he became involved in the growing national debate on dying with dignity. In 1987 he visited the Netherlands, where he studied techniques that allowed Dutch physicians to assist in the suicides of terminally ill patients without interference from the legal authorities.
During the 1980s, Kevorkian wrote a series of articles for the German journal Medicine and Law that laid out his thinking on the ethics of euthanasia.
Kevorkian started advertising in Detroit newspapers in 1987 as a physician consultant for "death counseling". His first public assisted suicide was in 1990, of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1989. He was charged with murder, but charges were dropped on December 13, 1990 as there were, at that time, no laws in Michigan regarding assisted suicide. However, in 1991 the State of Michigan revoked Kevorkian's medical license and made it clear that given his actions, he was no longer permitted to practice medicine or to work with patients. Between 1990 and 1998, Kevorkian assisted in the deaths of 130 terminally ill people, according to his lawyer Geoffrey Fieger. In each of these cases, the individuals themselves allegedly took the final action which resulted in their own deaths. Kevorkian allegedly assisted only by attaching the individual to a euthanasia device that he had made. The individual then pushed a button which released the drugs or chemicals that would end his or her own life. Two deaths were assisted by means of a device which delivered the euthanizing drugs mechanically through an I.V. Kevorkian called it a "Thanatron", or death machine. Other people were assisted by a device which employed a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide which was called "Mercitron", or mercy machine.
According to a report by the Detroit Free Press, 60% of the patients who committed suicide with Kevorkian's help were not terminally ill, at least 17 of them could have lived indefinitely, and in 13 cases, the patients had no complaints of pain. The report further asserted that Kevorkian's counseling was too brief. At least 19 patients died in less than 24 hours after their first meeting with the doctor. The report also cited 19 cases lacked a psychiatric exam; 5 of which involved people with histories of depression, though Kevorkian was sometimes alerted that the patient was unhappy for reasons other than their medical condition. In 1992, Kevorkian himself wrote that it is always necessary to consult a psychiatrist when performing assisted suicides because a person's "mental state is . . . of paramount importance." The report also stated that Kevorkian failed to refer at least 17 patients to a pain specialist after they complained of chronic pain, and sometimes failed to obtain a complete medical record for his patients, with at least three autopsies of suicides Kevorkian had assisted with showing the person who committed suicide to have no physical sign of disease. Rebecca Badger, a patient of Kevorkian's and a mentally troubled drug abuser, had been mistakenly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The report also stated that Janet Adkins, Kevorkian's first patient, had been chosen without Kevorkian ever speaking to her, only with her husband, and that when Kevorkian first met Adkins two days before her assisted suicide he "made no real effort to discover whether Ms. Adkins wished to end her life," as the Michigan Court of Appeals put it in a 1995 ruling upholding an order against Kevorkian's activity.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian was tried four times for assisting suicides between May 1994 to June 1997. With the assistance of his attorney Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian was acquitted three times. The fourth trial ended in a mistrial. The trials helped Kevorkian gain public support for his cause. After Oakland County prosecutor Richard Thompson lost a primary election to a Republican challenger, Thompson attributed the loss in part to the declining public support for the prosecution of Kevorkian and its associated legal expenses.
On the November 22, 1998 broadcast of 60 Minutes, Kevorkian allowed the airing of a videotape he had made on September 17, 1998, which depicted the voluntary euthanasia of Thomas Youk, 52, who was in the final stages of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. After Youk provided his fully informed consent on September 17, 1998, Kevorkian himself administered Thomas Youk a lethal injection. This was highly significant, as all of his earlier clients had reportedly completed the process themselves. During the videotape, Kevorkian dared the authorities to try to convict him or stop him from carrying out mercy killings.
On March 26, 1999, Kevorkian was charged with second-degree murder and the delivery of a controlled substance for his part in the lethal injection to Thomas Youk. Kevorkian's license to practice medicine had been revoked eight years previously; he was not legally allowed to possess the controlled substance. As homicide law is relatively fixed and routine, this trial was markedly different from earlier ones that involved an area of law in flux namely assisted suicide. Kevorkian discharged his attorneys and proceeded through the trial representing himself, a decision he later regretted. The judge ordered a criminal defense attorney to remain available at trial as standby counsel for information and advice. Inexperienced in law but persisting in his efforts to represent himself, Kevorkian encountered great difficulty in presenting his evidence and arguments. He was not able to call any witnesses to the stand as the judge did not deem the testimony of any of his witnesses relevant.
After a two day trial, the Michigan jury found Kevorkian guilty of second-degree homicide. The doctor was sentenced to serve 10–25 years. From his prison in Coldwater, Michigan, Kevorkian filed and lost numerous appeals. Additionally, Kevorkian was denied parole repeatedly until 2007.
In an MSNBC interview aired on September 29, 2005, Kevorkian stated that if he were granted parole, he would not resume directly helping people die and would restrict himself to campaigning to have the law changed. On December 22, 2005, Kevorkian was denied parole by a board on the count of 7–2 recommending not to give parole.
In May of 2006, reportedly terminally ill with Hepatitis C, which he contracted while doing research on blood transfusions, Jack Kevorkian was given a prognosis of under a year. After applying for a pardon, parole, or commutation by the parole board and Governor Jennifer Granholm, he was paroled for good behavior on June 1, 2007. He had spent eight years and two and a half months in prison. Kevorkian was on parole for two years, under the conditions that he not help anyone else die, or provide care for anyone older than 62 or disabled. The doctor stated he would abstain from assisting any more terminal patients with death, and his role in the matter would strictly be to persuade states to change their laws on assisted suicide. He was also forbidden by the rules of his parole from commenting about assisted suicide.
Upon his release from prison, Dr. Jack Kevorkian joined the lecture circuit, as well as a television interview tour. He lectured at universities such as the University of Florida, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. His talks have not been limited to the topic of euthanasia; he has also discussed such topics as tyranny, the criminal justice system, politics, the Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution, healthcare reform , and Armenian culture.
On March 12, 2008, Dr. Jack Kevorkian announced plans to run for United States Congress to represent Michigan's 9th congressional district. Kevorkian ran as an independent and was heavily defeated. He received 8,987 votes which was 2.6% of the vote.
A television movie starring Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, and John Goodman was made based on Kevorkian's life. "You Don't Know Jack" premiered April 14, 2010 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. Kevorkian walked the red carpet alongside Al Pacino, who portrayed him in the film. Subsequently, Pacino received Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his portrayal, and personally thanked Kevorkian, who was in the audience, upon receiving both of these awards.
In a 2010 interview with Sanjay Gupta, Kevorkian stated an objection to the status of assisted suicide in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Only in those three states is assisted suicide legal in the United States, and then only for terminally ill patients. To Gupta, Kevorkian stated "What difference does it make if someone is terminal? We are all terminal." In his view, a patient did not have to be terminally ill to be assisted in committing suicide, but did need to be suffering. However, he also said in that same interview that he declined four out of every five assisted suicide requests, on the grounds that the patient needed more treatment or medical records had to be checked.
In addition to his life's work of championing the right to die, Jack Kevorkian always enjoyed working on his art and music projects. Jack Kevorkian was a jazz musician and composer. "The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life" was a 1997 limited release CD of 5,000 copies from the 'Lucid Subjazz' label. It features Kevorkian on the flute and organ playing his own works with "The Morpheus Quintet". It was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly online as "weird" but "good natured". He was also an oil painter. His work tended toward the grotesque; he sometimes painted with his own blood, and had created pictures such as one "of a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse." Of his known works, six were made available in the 1990s for print release. The Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, Michigan is the exclusive distributor of Kevorkian's artwork. The original oil prints are not for release.
After struggling with kidney problems for years, as well as a recent diagnosis liver cancer, most likely caused by Hepatitis C, Jack Kevorkian was hospitalized on May 18, 2011. His kidney problems coupled with pneumonia grew rapidly worse. Jacob Kevorkian died from a thrombosis on June 3, 2011, eight days after his 83rd birthday, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. According to his attorney, Mayer Morganroth, there were no artificial attempts to keep him alive and his death was painless. Kevorkian proved to be as controversial in death, as he was in life. Judge Thomas Jackson, who presided over Kevorkian's first murder trial in 1994, commented that he wanted to express sorrow at Kevorkian's passing and that the 1994 case was brought under "a badly written law" aimed at Kevorkian, but he tried to give him "the best trial possible". Former Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca said "I think it was a certain level of hypocrisy in not choosing suicide" referring to Kevorkian's death. In the same way expressed Ned McGrath, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s communications director: "It is both ironic and tragic that Kevorkian himself was afforded a dignified, natural death in a hospital, something he denied to those who came to him in desperation, only to be poisoned and have their bodies left in places such as vans and motel rooms. He never married.