The Story of Dr. Death — An Early Assisted Suicide Advocate
Admittingly, I was struggling to find something I actually wanted to write about this week. As you may recall if you’ve read my previous posts, my focus is more or the less on the idea of assisted suicide by a physician. That is, in the form of physician assisted suicide, where a physician prescribes medication to a patient, which the patient will use to end their life. Or in the form of euthanasia, which is an instance of a physician actually administering the drugs to the patient to end their life.
So, instead of delving into arguments from one side or another this week (as I usually do) I’d like to tell the fascinating story of Jack Kevorkian, former MD and American pathologist.
Who was he?
Jack, as I’ll refer to him was essentially an early and prominent advocate of assisted suicide, especially through methods of euthanasia. He lived from 1928–2011.
Early in his life, Jack was a gifted young man. He graduated from high school in Michigan at age 17, with numerous honors. He eventually earned a B.S. and M.D. from University of Michigan in 1952(Allow me to point out the University of Michigan Medical school is one of the best in the country).
Jack completed his formal training in anatomical and physical pathology. So what made him even look at the issue of physician assisted suicide? After all, PAS did not come into prominence really until the late 1980’s.
It started in 1959, Jack was peculiar in a sense he started to develop ideas that frankly alarmed other physicians and professionals within his field. His most controversial ideas mostly related to death. For example, Jack proposed within a journal article that prisoners who were sentenced to death should be able to choose death by medical experimentation instead. He continued to advocate for using prisoners for medical experiments if they were sentenced to death, and even put forward the idea deceased prisoners should have their organs removed and transplanted to sick patients.
Evidently, his peers and supervisors at his workplace of the University of Michigan Medical Center were not amused. Jack left his position at the University and continued to publish his ideas and share them through whatever medium allowed him.
Jack’s string of controversial ideas were just beginning to blossom. If his previous peers and prison officials would not allow him to carry out his proposals, Jack would find someone who would. He was hired as a pathologist at another hospital, where he experimented with taking blood from recently deceased patients into living, sick patients. The hospital, expectedly, would not ever allow this. So he transferred the blood from corpses to his hospital coworkers, where he saw his experiment was successful, in the sense his coworkers’ immune systems did not set off a cascade of biochemical reactions that would most certainly kill them. Jack continued with his rather unconventional ways up until 1987, where he made his announcement of support of physician assisted suicide.
Jack first introduced this as “death counseling”, and offered his services as a counselor himself. At the time, (circa 1990), there were no laws in place for physician assisted suicide (at least not in the United States). Therefore, any sort of interaction where a physician gave drugs that helped or facilitated death of an individual was essentially murder. Nevertheless, this didn’t deter persistent Jack. Jack, as will be revealed later, had very loose guidelines on who he could counsel. If you wanted to die, Jack could probably make it happen.
And that he did for Janet Adkins, a 54 year old woman who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Now if you’re not sure what Alzheimer’s Disease is, it is a genetic disease with essentially 100% of individuals who possess this gene, undergoing a neurodegenerative process which will bring about dementia, disorientation, problem with language, and other neurologically crippling effects. It is, even today, a terrifying and poorly understood disease.
Jack made this act public. Bold, right? Equally foolish. Jack was promptly charged with murder, but since the state of Michigan had no laws regarding physician assisted suicide at the time, Jack was not charged, to his delight.
For the next 8 years, after being stripped of his medical license, Jack assisted in the death of over 130 patients. He constructed devices, one he even called outright called the “Death Machine”. Patients were attached to a machine, in which, when ready, they could press a button that released a cocktail mix of chemicals which would end the patient’s life. Or they were administered a gas mask that was connected to a carbon monoxide source, which he called the “Mercy Machine”. Accordingly, he earned the nickname by the media, “Dr. Death”.
Sounds pretty awful, right? Why did he do this in the first place? He wasn’t (in my opinion), some maniac who got off on killing people. After all, he put the act of their death in their own hands (quite literally, by having them press their own button, or place their own mask on). Equally, these individuals were screened for illnesses and circumstances that warranted an assisted suicide. There was, according to observers and those who knew him, no ulterior motive. What did Jack himself say about the situation?
“ My aim in helping the patient was not to cause death. My aim was to end suffering. It’s got to be decriminalized.”
Despite the frightening sounding methods, his intentions seemed noble, right? I quite honestly think they were, but Jack really needed to polish his criteria. A report released by a Detroit newspaper found that 60% of Jack’s patients he helped die were not terminally ill, and 10% of them had not complained of any pain at all. Equally, the report found that Jack had 19 patients who died within 24 hours (!) of counseling with Jack, and in another 19 cases, there was no psychiatric screening performed, even when 5 people of those 19 had a history of mental illness. A small amount had no physical illnesses at all, were misdiagnosed, or could have been treated. As a result, in 1995, a Michigan supreme court ordered a halt to Jack’s counseling.
But of course, Jack didn’t stop, and in 1998, he filmed a voluntary euthanasia of a patient with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (a disease that eventually results in the inability to move, or breathe on your own). Now, keep in mind, up to this point, ALL patients who had died under Jack’s care had administered the drugs or chemicals themselves. But now, Jack had administered the drugs himself, and he recorded it. He sent the video to the CBS New Program 60 minutes, and it was broadcast on National Television. Ironically, he taunted officials in the video, to “dare” to stop him from performing these killings which he felt, were relieving suffering in society. The family of the individual who died felt the death was merciful, and did not object to the death being televised.
Well, state prosecutors did not find it so benign. Jack was charged with second degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance. He, incredibly, attempted to represent himself in court, dismissing his lawyers. Unsurprisingly, it took only a two day trial and Jack was sentenced to 10–25 years in prison. In March 1999, he was sent to prison, and released 8 years later due to good behavior.
Let’s face it, Jack’s actions were outrageous, his ideas controversial, and his methodology fundamentally flawed. But Jack is credited with starting a national dialogue. He is a prominent figure in the history of medicine. Through numerous interviews and presentations at college campuses, Jack continually revealed his only goal was to relieve patient suffering. He famously proclaimed “Dying is not a crime.” Jack is credited with revolutionizing the idea of suicide. He regretted not being more selective and thorough in his criteria, but he never regretted what he felt he stood for: the right to die. He strongly put forward the idea that physicians are responsible to alleviate the suffering of individuals.
His tombstone reads, “He sacrificed himself for everyone’s rights.”
Whether you agree or disagree with that, I hope we can all agree, he was a fascinating man who has had a historical impact on medicine.