By Louise Love
Dr. Jack Kevorkian died, unassisted, of thrombosis related
to kidney disease on June 3 this year at the age of 83. Throughout his life, Kevorkian espoused causes that were alien to received medical ethics, but it was his advocacy for and practice of assisted suicide that brought him notoriety and earned him the nickname, “Dr. Death.” Kevorkian persisted in assisting terminally ill patients to end their lives even when the State of Michigan passed laws specifically aimed at stopping him. As a consequence, he lost his license to practice medicine and, ultimately, spent eight years in jail for assisting Tom Youk, a patient with Lou Gherig’s disease, to commit suicide. Youk’s suicide and an interview with Kevorkian aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1998, led to criminal prosecution and conviction of second degree murder .
In his youth, Kevorkian rejected the Armenian Orthodoxy in which he was raised and frequently challenged the authority of clergy and teachers. After serving in the medical corps in Korea, he pursued research into the transfusion of blood from dead bodies into wounded soldiers. He also advocated the use of prisoners on death row for voluntary medical experimentation.
Always fascinated by end-of-life physiology and ethics, he invented the “Thanatron,” a device that enabled a terminally ill patient or a patient in intractable pain to end his/her life quickly and painlessly. When the technology used in the Thanatron was outlawed, Kevorkian invented the “Mercitron” to take its place.
Kevorkian was defiant in his pursuit of what he believed to be each person’s right to choose when to die. Fundamentally, it was a right that he wanted for himself. He said, “I want some colleague to be free to come help me when I say the time has come. That’s what I’m fighting for, me.“
Although Kevorkian has many critics, I believe he was ahead of his time, fighting for individuals’ right to be freed from devastating illnesses and slow, wasting deaths. Final Exit Network wrote of Kevorkian, “While history will likely record him as a stubborn, intemperate and controversial curmudgeon, it cannot ignore his role in bringing the physician-assisted-dying debate to public consciousness.”
In 2010, Kevorkian’s life and mission were dramatized by HBO under the title You Don’t Know Jack. Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino, this made-for -t.v. film has been widely praised for portraying the human side of this controversial figure who is regarded by some as a serial killer (he claimed to have assisted in 133 deaths) and by others as a relentless pioneer who defied the establishment to promote death with dignity. This debate rages on with only three states in the United States permitting physician-assisted suicide and only a few countries in the world where it is legal. Needless to say, terminally ill patients travel to these destinations so that they may have some control over the time and circumstances of their deaths.
In his way, Jack Kevorkian was a freedom fighter. That is why he is “my radical.”
Louise Love is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Interim Provost at Columbia College Chicago.