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.”
Despite his best efforts, Dr. Kevorkian was, for the most part, a lone soldier who had an abrasive personality. Although he was the best-known figure in fighting for euthanasia’s legalization, the legislative results of his efforts were largely unsuccessful, if not counterproductive.
His goal was to make it legal for a doctor to actively help a patient commit suicide. But to date, no state has made this legal and only three states, Washington, Oregon and Montana, have legalized any form of physician-assisted suicide. To the contrary, the state of Michigan, where Dr. Kevorkian did much of his work, explicitly banned physician-assisted suicide in 1993 in direct response to his efforts.
“I think Jack Kevorkian was like a flare on the battlefield — he lit up the issue and everyone paid attention,” Caplan said. “He got to absolute center stage, but he didn’t have the nuance to take it forward the way he wanted to.”
Dr. Kevorkian’s path to becoming a doctor was not as unusual as his career that followed. Born on May 28, 1928, in Pontiac, Mich., he wanted to be a baseball radio broadcaster, but his Armenian immigrant parents encouraged him to pursue a more practical path. He graduated from the University of Michigan’s medical school in 1952 and began a residency in pathology.
It was about this time that his obsession with death began. In the 1950s, he first received the nickname “Dr. Death” when he began photographing patient’s eyes to determine the exact time of death.
He also campaigned to use the bodies of death-row inmates for medical experimentation.
And then, facing the sorrowful faces of terminally ill patients as a pathology intern, he became convinced that there was a place in the medical profession for euthanasia.
“Euthanasia wasn’t of much interest to me until my internship year, when I saw first hand how cancer can ravage the body,” he wrote in his 1993 book “Prescription Medicine: The Goodness of Planned Death.” “The patient was a helplessly immobile woman of middle age, her entire body jaundiced to an intense yellow-brown, skin stretched paper thin over a fluid-filled abdomen swollen to four or five times normal size.”
His life after this was devoted to the cause. Dr. Kevorkian, who lived alone in a small apartment in Michigan, never married and had no children. The people most closely associated with him were his defense attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who represented him without a fee; and one of his faithful, longtime assistants, Janet Good.
When, on one occasion, Good backed out of letting Dr. Kevorkian use her home for an assisted suicide, he temporarily turned his back on her.
To help a patient commit suicide, Dr. Kevorkian often used a homemade machine that sent a saline drip into the person’s arm. When ready to die, the patient could press a button that would trigger the release of a potent chemical that would bring sleep. One minute later, a timer on the machine would send a dose of potassium chloride into the patient’s body, causing the heart to stop.
Dr. Kevorkian faced trial four times in Michigan for his actions but was acquitted in three instances because of then-unclear laws on whether physician-assisted suicide was illegal. His fourth trial was declared a mistrial.
Unlike Michigan, most states do not have explicit laws banning physician-assisted suicide, and nearly always, Dr. Kevorkian was careful not to administer the fatal medication himself, although it was his hope that within his lifetime, the law would allow him to do so. He was thus able to escape jail for a long time.
But after he recorded his assistance in the death of Thomas Youk and allowed the recording to be aired on “60 Minutes” in 1998, Dr. Kevorkian was arrested and convicted of second-degree murder in Michigan.
Youk, who was in the final stages of ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, was too ill to administer the drugs himself, so Dr. Kevorkian had done it for him.
During the trial, Dr. Kevorkian vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“He calls it a murder, a crime, a killing,” Dr. Kevorkian said, referring to the prosecutor. “I call it medical science. Tom Youk didn’t come to me saying, ‘I want to die, kill me.’ He said, ‘Please help me.’ There was medical affliction. Medical service is exempt from certain laws.”
Dr. Kevorkian was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison but was paroled in June 2007 for good behavior after promising not to assist in any more suicides.
“It’s got to be legalized. That’s the point,” he told a Detroit TV reporter shortly after his release from prison. “I’ll work to have it legalized. But I won’t break any laws doing it.”
Ultimately, Dr. Kevorkian’s said his belief regarding a patient’s right to die had a simple premise: It was in the Constitution, unwritten but guaranteed by the Ninth Amendment, which states that Americans are not excluded from rights that are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.
“There have been many constitutional scholars over time that have believed that the Ninth Amendment deserves more respect, but Dr. Kevorkian took it further than most lawyers and most constitutional scholars would take it,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard professor and lawyer who was an adviser in several of Dr. Kevorkian’s legal battles, and corresponded with him while he was in prison.
“He was part of the civil rights movement — although he did it in his own way,” Dershowitz said. “He didn’t lead marches, he didn’t get other people to follow him, instead he put his own body in the line of fire, and there are not many people who would do that. In the years that come, his views may become more mainstream.”