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KillgoreTrout On June - 8 - 2011

Dr. “Jack,” Kevorkian passed away on 6/3/11. Last Friday, to be exact

He has been hailed as a champion by the right to die movement and vilified as a ghoulish serial killer by his detractors.

Dr. Kevorkian was born to Armenian immigrant parents in Pontiac Michigan, in 1928. He was an American pathologist, painter, composer and musician, as well as an activist for assisted suicide. For the right to die, with dignity and to avoid intense prolonged pain and the possible humiliation of dementia and loss of control of bodily functions. He was a genuine modern day Renaissance man. A brave and compassionate man.

In the 1980s, Dr. Kevorkian wrote a series of articles for the German journal Medicine and Law, laying out his thoughts on euthanasia. His belief in euthanasia was not based based on race, gender, political persuasion or any factor other than the relief of suffering and  an unwavering belief in the right of  a person to chose his/her own death. An individual choice,  as opposed to the government forcing one to suffer needlessly.

Dr. “Jack,” put his activism in practice with the assisted suicide of Janet Adkins, a 54 year old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He could not find a home or building in which to do this, so he did it  in the back of his Volkswagen bus, in a peaceful, sylvan setting.

Although Janet Adkins had given her signed permission, and wish to die in this way, Dr. Kevorkian was charged with murder. The charges didn’t stick, because at that time, there was no law in Michigan against assisted suicide. The patient being assisted had to initiate the euthanasia process themselves, as proof that they were the ones making the final choice.

Dr. Kevorkian was tried in Michigan courts four times. The first three times, he was aquitted and the fourth time the trial resulted in a hung jury. Dr. “Jack,” went on to assist over 130 people, who suffered from a variety of terminal illnesses, or relentless, unmanageable pain. Everyone of these people wanted to die. Many of them pleading with Dr. Kevorkian to end their suffering.

But Dr. Kevorkian wanted more than just to assist the dying. He was, after all, an activist for assisted suicide and he wanted to make a grand point and hopefully have laws in favor of assisted suicide. To this end, although all the assisted deaths before, were initiated by the patients and not the good doctor, he decided to give a lethal injection to a man dying from ALS, or Lou Gehrig‘s disease. Dr. “Jack,” videotaped this incident, as he had done with many of the others, but this time he called CBS and requested to be on 60 Minutes, and was granted an interview. During this interview, he showed the videotape to a nationwide audience. I offer this episode of 60 Minutes below. I feel I should warn people of the contents of this interview. It may not be an easy thing for some to watch;


This appearance on 60 Minutes prompted another investigation of Dr. Kevorkian. Because he administered the deadly drugs himself, this time. Something he had never done before. He was once again charged with murder, only this time, the odds were not in his favor. This did not bother the doctor one bit. A big part of him actually wanted to be convicted, to help further the cause of assisted suicide. And, when all was said and done, he got his wish. He was convicted of 2nd degree murder and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.

It’s difficult to say that he received a fair trial. Much of the evidence Dr. Kevorkian wanted to introduce was disallowed by the judge. But no matter, he was soon hauled off to prison where he did over 8 years of confinement.

As part of his parole agreement, he promised not to assist in any more suicides. He kept his promise.

I am writing this because, even though it seems like old news (and I have left a great deal out) assisted suicide is still illegal in all but two states. Oregon and Washington. Dr. Kevorkian was not happy that only two states had passed laws making assisted suicide legal.

I offer this in hopes of starting a discussion about the right to end one’s own life, by a trained physician, in a setting of comfort and calm and with the blessings of loved ones who cannot stand to see a member of their family suffer needlessly, and when their is no hope for any recovery.

Categories: Human Rights, Society

Written by KillgoreTrout

Once a wander, working vagabond, fellow traveler on this 3rd stone from the sun. Hurtling through space and time. Lover of books (especially the classics), all kinds of books from novels, poetry, essay collections, fiction and nonfiction and a big Kurt Vonnegut fan. I am a secular humanist and technically an atheist.....Taoist.

24 Responses so far.

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  1. AdLib says:

    The HBO bio on him (“You Don’t Know Jack”) presented that his mother’s suffering while terminally ill and his parents escaping the Armenian Holocaust both may have had a strong influence on his views and motivations.

    He was a zealot which made him both a champion and problem for the promotion of his cause. Not content to have escaped prosecution repeatedly by passively providing euthanasia, his determination to have a court rule for the right to terminating one’s own life led him to that massive miscalculation of actively assisting in the provision of euthanasia and doing so in front of millions of people on 60 Minutes when it still had massive viewership.

    He was a package deal, his passion for the right of people to have final say over their own lives and an inner drive to incessantly push the legal system until it fell on him like a ton of bricks. His theory was, he wanted to pave the road for people to follow him but instead, it seems that his obsession with pushing the legal boundaries has made that path far more threatening and difficult, at least for the time being.

    He was a unique and singular man, I think one of great compassion and concern for those who suffered with no hope of stopping it but in the end I think he was undone by hubris.

    However, he made his mark and forced an important conversation that otherwise might never have taken place and will continue.

    • I don’t know AdLib. yes, the Armenian genocide and his mother’s painful death no doubt influenced him to a large extent. But how does one advocate suicide without the need for hubris? He couldn’t passively advocate and obey the very law he was trying to change. He felt, and I still don’t know if he was correct in his feeling, that he had to push the issue to the limit and then some. He was well aware that he could get prison time and almost welcomed it. People sometimes have to go to extremes to get unjust laws changed. I think Dr. Kevorkian really opened people’s eyes to the unnecessary suffering and loss of dignity that was being imposed by the government, upon people who had little recourse but to obey. Obey and suffer. I don’t see how he could have advocated in any other meaningful way.

      • AdLib says:

        I’m all for hubris but I think that in this case, he took it farther than was constructive. Admittedly, that can be hard to gauge from an individual’s POV when they’re in the middle of it all but he had made such progress then, IMO, made a big mistake which took him out of a position to continue helping people and being an advocate and let government establish a major threat to anyone who might dare to follow him.

        If you haven’t seen the HBO film, I highly recommend it. If it is accurate, Kervorkian is shown to be too convicted at times to be sensible.

        Wouldn’t he have helped his cause and many more people if he hadn’t insisted on going to jail for 8 years and coming out chastened and making a sad, futile run for office?

        People overreach sometimes, I think he did. He had remarkable achievements, made huge headway towards his ultimate goal but insisted on getting it all now.

        Had he instead continued helping others end their suffering and been a constant presence in the media, making euthanasia more and more reasonable and familiar to the public, I think it would have been much easier for others to pick up the torch and continue his fight after he was gone.

        As it is, we haven’t really seen the torch picked up over the 8 years he was in prison or since he got out.

        Maybe his passing will be what motivates someone else to step up. We’ll see…

        • AdLib, see kes’s comment below. She talks about hospice care and the not so restrictive treatment patients now receive, as opposed to pre-1990s care. Kevorkian really did succeed although there are still so many states that outlaw assisted suicide. But there is more than one way to assist a person in their dying days, such as a more liberal amount of pain killers that are administered.
          One of Dr. Kevorkian’s biggest disgusts was shutting off someone’s feeding tube. He considered this cruel and sadistic. Yes, I have seen “You Don’t Know Jack,” and it is why I chose to write this article. We have differing opinions on this. No biggie. That’s why were here, right?

  2. Khirad says:

    There’s even a band named after him. Undoubtedly not most people’s musical persuasion, but ’twas not an idle name. This is chock-full of Kevorkian-related sampling:

    • Thanks K for this video. It says alot, and I enjoyed it. I always hated the label “Dr. Death.” I think, if anything, he was an advocate for life. A life that is not filled with torture and agony. Death is it’s own advocate. We are all terminal.

  3. Chernynkaya says:

    Kilgore, let me echo the others who thank you for this topic. I was especially enlightened by the comments of Sally and Kes who brought up the issues of hospice and a living will. They are both likely outcomes of the work of Dr. Kervorkian, and for that alone, he made a huge and positive difference.

    All I can say about this is that I hope I have the courage if and when the time comes. I support the right to end our lives if we want. ChoiceLady brought up the idea of suffering as a religious virtue and I could not agree more with her assessment of that repugnant idea. But let me just add one more religious idea about end of life suffering--not one I subscribe to, but I can see the reasoning behind it. Many people who believe in reincarnation believe that everything on this earth is a lesson; that our purpose is to advance spiritually and eventually get off the cycle of rebirth and re-death. As such, they see the suffering as a purification or as a way to help them learn about suffering and eventually reach nirvana. There is much more written about this than my simplistic telling, but I just wanted to add that. The bottom line though of course it’s that it is totally up to each person to make that decision.

    • Thanks cher for your reply. I think physical suffering, and I mean the worst of physical suffering, blinding pain and loss of self is totally unnecessary. I have read about the theological idea of suffering and how it may apply to some sort of rebirth, but I just can’t buy into that. I do believe that “hard times,” such as homelessness, loss of a loved one, loss of material wealth, addiction, accidents and injuries often times makes us stronger and helps us grow, both spiritually and physically. But I can see no good reason or benefit for the continuance of excrutiating pain and/or dementia. I realize, as you have said, that there are people who believe that such suffering has some sort of benefit in the “next life.” That is fine with me, as long as it is not forced on others that do not believe as such. There should not be a law saying that a person does not have the right to die if that is what they truly wish. To me, it should be one of the unalienable rights that are spoken of in the Declaration of Independence.

  4. kesmarn says:

    KT, thanks for raising a delicate, but important, issue.

    Like choicelady, I didn’t particularly admire Jack Kavorkian’s personality. He was such a publicity hound (and I do realize that he felt he needed all that publicity to make his point) that he produced a sort of carnival atmosphere in situations where reverence might have been more appropriate.

    But at the same time, I’m grateful to him for his contributions. Which, oddly, are not in the area of legalizing assisted suicide, but rather in the realm of improving pain management and in making hospice care more available, acceptable and affordable.

    As you know, KT, I’m in the field of health care — acute care. And I must say that — except for the rare sudden death — you hardly ever see death in a hospital anymore. Death is almost always at home (often with hospice home care) or in an in-patient hospice setting.

    You may have noticed that people haven’t talked much about Kevorkian over the last decade or so, and I know that that might have been partly because he sort of disappeared behind the prison doors. But I think it might also be related to the fact that he isn’t so necessary any more.

    I’ve watched the hospice people do their jobs up close and they’re pretty amazing. They know more tricks and techniques for getting rid of pain than you could imagine. They help people to breathe easier. They treat anxiety and depression. They don’t give up until they find the right combination of meds to relieve pain, nausea, diarrhea, whatever. I don’t have statistics, but I would say that lives may be shorter in hospice care (because they’re not afraid to give a lotta morphine or dilaudid), but they’re a lot more comfortable.

    Does that amount to assisted suicide? Maybe, depending on the definition.

    But even the Catholic church says that when prolonging life turns into prolonging death — it’s time to quit. I feel terrible when I hear that people’s misguided sense of religiosity makes them seek out suffering, or try to endure it without medication. Do they think that God didn’t make those pretty little poppies that produce that fabulous opium? Gimme a break!

    There’s no need for any person to seek out suffering for religious reasons. If you wait long enough, life will supply you with all the suffering you could possibly want. You don’t have to go looking for it.

    When you’re no longer fighting to stay alive — when you’re “actively dying” (as the hospice folks put it) — it’s time to take every damned drug you want or need to take. (And the hospice people have them all and use them liberally.) And if it shortens your life — my feeling is, so be it.

    • Thanks kes, for your thoughtful reply. I agree that the trials and tribulations that Dr. Kevorkian took on have brought about better attitudes toward end of life decisions. As far as his arrogance, how does one advocate suicide without an element of arrogance. For such advocation flies in the face of god. Isn’t suicide still regarded by the CC as a mortal sin?

  5. jkkFL says:

    KT, Thank you for a gentle, understanding post on a caring man.
    I am all about Quality of life.
    There is no comfort in having to deprive your Beloved Mother of fluids so she could die- because she wanted to- at 86.
    She was in pain, and she was tired.. but nobody could Do anything.
    I plan to plan ahead for My Time…

  6. SallyT says:

    Killgore, thank you for this article. I find it somewhat irronic that we can have a “do not resuscitate document”, often called a “living will” and it is a binding legal document that states resuscitation should not be attempted if a person suffers cardiac or respiratory arrest. This right is granted us or someone we leave in charge to make the decision on our behalf. The doctor can not be brought up on charges for not keeping you alive. Why can’t we have the same rights over our bodies when suffering intense prolonged pain and the possible humiliation of dementia and loss of control of bodily functions? Isn’t a “living will” a right to die contract? So, the doctor not keeping you going is legal but helping you go from your pain and suffering is. I find that irronic. I know religion beliefs would find the exceptions but why do I have to follow those if I don’t so believe? Again they take away the right of choice but they don’t want that “big government”. Irronic.
    Also, Killgore, I think there are 3 states now: Oregon, Washington, and Montana. But, I may be mistaken.
    Thank you again for the article.

    • Khirad says:

      Indeed, and I regret on having moved before I could vote on the Washington law.

      Maybe Pepe could clear that up on its status in Montana, as it was a court decision.

      Still kinda funny to me that California has the reputation as the most liberal state in the West. 😛

    • My pleasure Sally, I’m glad you enjoyed it. With such a grim subject I was afraid no one would want to discuss it. I am glad I was wrong. I’ll have to look into Montana. That would be good news.

      • jkkFL says:

        I think you picked a subject that many of us have, or are facing the possibility of making these kinds of decisions.
        You can have all the advance planning and paperwork in place, but when you are in ‘that place’, minutes become hours, and hours become days.
        Nothing prepares you for the helplessness of standing by- waiting.

        I would like to add my voice, KT- you are a talented and valuable member of this forum! Please consider doing more writing.

  7. choicelady says:

    So much of what underpins opposition to death with dignity legislation is the belief that suffering is the “godly” way to live.

    Until I see a signed letter from God, I will refuse to believe that.

    The Oregon and Washington laws are very careful. The large faith organization for which I work has a principle affirming the right to die.

    I am concerned, as anyone might be, that people can and will be pressed to “remove” themselves for the benefit of others who are pressuring them, but the laws are very clear on the protections about that. I can see no value in suffering at all if the outcome is entirely negative. Suffering to get well? Wholly different issue and one where pain management is very much needed. But suffering on the way to death is absurd, and to insist on it is inhumane and the absolute opposite of moral.

    I never liked Kevorkian as a person. He was arrogant and self promoting, but that did not make him wrong. I hope his own death was easy and peaceful and that his advocacy will linger on. I’d like to have that option if and when I might need it. Seems only right that we have that choice. Suffering is not noble, and any just god in the universe would agree.

    • Thanks choice. I understand the concern for the possible abuse of assisted suicide, but as you said, there are laws we can write to prevent such abuse. Dr. Kevorkian would turn away patients who were suffering from depression and other mental illness, because those conditions can be managed. But even with our vast knowledge of medicine and pain management, there are just some conditions that leave even the best of doctors helpless thus making their patients also helpless.
      I watched one of my grandmothers die of pancreatic cancer. She was very religious, a really devout Christian. She didn’t believe in taking drugs and that belief made her suffer horribly in the last few days of her life. She repeatedly plead to the lord to “take her.” I was just outraged by that, but I kept quiet about it. The last thing she needed at the time was someone speaking unfavorably about her beliefs.

    • texliberal says:

      Spot on choice. Recently visited my 99 year old mother-in-law in a Southeastern Missouri nursing home. She was a devout and I MEAN DEVOUT Catholic all of her life. Her body is fairly sound for 99 but her mind has long since gone. If that is some God’s reward for a long life of piety I want no part of it.

  8. KQuark says:

    Great post KT. I am 100% for death with dignity. Having a chronic illness myself you realize that quality of life is not only important but a basic human right. There is nothing worse than living as a ghost in a shell when your body can literally do nothing and you are in constant discomfort. Some people don’t realize that sometimes it’s not a definable pain that makes you miserable because if your organs are shutting down the discomfort can be as unbearable as as any pain.

    • Thanks for responding KQ. I couldn’t agree more. I am sorry to here about your illness. I am pretty sure that one day, maybe not so distant, I will develop liver cancer. I will refuse to suffer needlessly. I just won’t do it, even if it means taking the law into my own hands. There is no dignity in such suffering.

  9. funksands says:

    Great post KT. There is so little that we are in control of in our life, the least being how we came into it. Being able to leave it in a manner of our choosing and with what dignity we can manage doesn’t seem too much to ask.

  10. ADONAI says:

    Damn KT, I wish you would write more posts. You pick some pretty interesting topics.

    I’ve always liked “Dr. Jack”. I think he did a good, decent thing for a great many people. But I’ve always had a strange outlook on life. I love life, living it, and experiencing it, but I’ve never held it as something sacred.

    The ravages of disease and old age kinda put a damper on the whole “life is sacred” thing. What is right and just about telling someone they can’t chose where, when, and how they die? What is just about forcing someone to endure mind numbing pain just to satisfy your personal beliefs or shallow sense of “decency”?

    You gotta love a country that allows the poor and hungry to die on the street but still cops a “holier than thou” attitude about the “virtue of life”. I don’t think a lot of people ever give up on life but, at some point, life gives up on them. Then what are they to do? Continue a futile struggle against the end? We hardly bat an eye at the “casualties of war” but what about the “casualties of life”?

    On the spiritual side, Dr. Kevorkian was doing the Lord’s work. When we can no longer heal the body, why not release the soul? What attachment do we have to this “crude matter”, as Yoda would say. From the stars we are born and to the stars we will return. Find happiness in the time we had with them, and rejoice in their return to the whole.

    I wish he could have seen more progress before his passing. A justification for the good works he has done. But very few revolutionaries are ever appreciated in their own time.

    R.I.P. Dr. Kevorkian. I hope you find joy with the souls you saved.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. People used to tell Dr. Kevorkian that he was “playing god.” When a surgeon removes a tumor, isn’t he also playing god? Isn’t that interfering with the will of god?
      A vast majority of Americans agree with the idea of assisted suicide. But then, as usual, there are those who wish to impose their religious beliefs on others. Rick Santorum comes to mind. The asswipe that diagnosed Terry Schiavo simply by watching a brief video of her. Just as the founders claimed that man has a divine right to be free, so should we have a divine right to make decisions concerning how we exit this world. Especially when pain and suffering cannot be relieved by the best medical science.

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