Dr. Kevorkian spent decades campaigning for the legalization of euthanasia. He served eight years in prison and was arrested numerous times for helping more than 130 patients commit suicide from 1990 to 2000, using injections, carbon monoxide and his infamous suicide machine, built from scraps for $30. Those he aided had terminal conditions such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and malignant brain tumors.
When asked in a 2010 interview by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about how it felt to take a patient’s life, Dr. Kevorkian said, “I didn’t do it to end a life. I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering — what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?”
Dying, he believed, should be an intimate and dignified process, something that many terminally ill people are denied, he said.
He garnered a fair amount of support from other medical practitioners, although most thought he was an extremist. In 1995, a group of doctors in Michigan publicly voiced their support for Dr. Kevorkian’s philosophy, stating that they supported a “merciful, dignified, medically assisted termination of life.”
Shortly after, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that many doctors in Oregon and Michigan supported some form of physician-assisted suicide in certain cases.
One of his greatest victories occurred in March 1996 when a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that mentally competent, terminally ill adults have a constitutional right to die with the aid of medical experts and family members. It was the first federal endorsement of its kind.
But ultimately, Dr. Kevorkian’s impact was not in the U.S. legal system but in raising public awareness about euthanasia and the suffering of the terminally ill.
In the 1990s, the peak of his time in the limelight, he notoriously tried publicity stunts of all sorts to draw attention to his cause. In one instance, he showed up at trial dressed in Colonial attire. He also taped one of his patient’s deaths and gave the video to CBS’ s “60 Minutes” for broadcast.
During this period, his face was frequently on television and in newspapers, and he gladly agreed to a barrage of news media interviews so he could share his views. His crusade and antics were documented last year in an HBO movie, “You Don’t Know Jack,” in which Al Pacino portrayed him as a passionate, but intolerably single-minded crusader.
“He was involved in this because he thought it was right, and whatever anyone wants to say about him, I think that’s the truth,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “He didn’t do it for the money, he didn’t do it for the publicity, he wasn’t living a luxurious life – he wanted change.”