Jack Kevorkian (born May 26, 1928) is a controversial American medical doctor who is most famous for his vocal support for the "right to die," and for assisting the suicides of over 100 people. He is currently in prison in Michigan.
Kevorkian was born in 1928 in Pontiac, Michigan the son of Armenian immigrants. He received a medical degree with a specialty in pathology from the University of Michigan in 1952. In 1956 he published a journal article, "The Fundus Oculi and the Determination of Death," discussing his efforts to photograph the eyes of dying patients, a practice that earned him the nickname "Doctor Death". In December 1958 he presented a paper at a meeting in Washington, D.C. advocating medical experimentation on consenting convicts during executions. Embarrassed, University of Michigan officials asked Kevorkian to leave his residency there. In 1961 he published an article in The American Journal of Clinical Pathology detailing his experiments on transfusing blood from cadavers to live patients. In 1970, he became chief pathologist at Saratoga General Hospital in Detroit. He remained there until the late 1970s.
In the late 70s, he quit his pathology career, traveled to California, and invested his life savings in directing and producing a feature movie based on Handel's "Messiah." With no distributor, the movie flopped. In the early 1980s he published numerous articles in the obscure German journal Medicine and Law outlining his ideas on euthanasia and ethics. In 1987 he started advertising in Detroit papers as a "physician consultant" for "death counseling". In 1988 Kevorkian's article, "The Last Fearsome Taboo: Medical Aspects of Planned Death," was published in Medicine and Law. In it, he outlined his proposed system of planned deaths in suicide clinics, including medical experimentation on patients.
In 1988 he built his suicide machine using $30 worth of scrap parts scrounged from garage sales and hardware stores, on the kitchen table of his Royal Oak, Michigan, apartment. On June 4, 1990, he assisted in his first suicide. Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Portland, Oregon, woman with Alzheimer's disease. Her death using the "suicide machine" occurred in Kevorkian's 1968 Volkswagen van in Groveland Oaks Park near Holly, Michigan.
Dr. Kevorkian's assisted suicides occurred from 1990 to 1998. In each case, he hooked the client up to a machine he created for this purpose. After being hooked up, the client would push a button to end his life. Two such assisted suicides were by means of a lethal injection machine, and the rest were by machines that would kill the client by means of a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide.
Dr. Kevorkian sought publicity for himself and his euthanasia program, in order to stir public debate on the right to die. He was charged with murder in Michigan a number of times; he was acquitted or had a mistrial in four criminal trials, and judges dismissed some other charges against him; in some of these cases, lower courts declared that in the United States, there is a constitutionally-based right to die. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states do have the right to outlaw doctor-assisted suicide.
On March 26, 1999, a jury in Michigan found Dr. Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance, for administering a lethal injection to a Thomas Youk, an ALS sufferer. The incident had been videotaped, and, in what prosecutors seemed to believe was a spotlit flouting of the law, was aired on the September 17, 1998 edition of 60 Minutes. Kevorkian was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2007.
Dr. Kevorkian's activities did stir debate, and brought the right to die into the spotlight of media attention. At least partly as a result of this attention, in 1994, and again in 1997, voters in Oregon approved its Death with Dignity Act, authorizing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to die. These initiatives have been attacked by the federal government and other groups since their passage.
Dr. Kevorkian's supporters include those who generally support the legalization of the voluntary euthanasia or suicide of a terminally ill patient, especially when the patient is in pain. Studies have indicated that most doctors seem to support a terminally ill patient volunteering to end his own life.
Criticism of Dr. Kevorkian has been heavy. Some critics categorically oppose the terminally ill (or those in constant pain) taking their own lives. Beyond these criticisms, critics have stated that Dr. Kevorkian has primarily practiced as a pathologist, has relatively little experience with live patients, has had all his licenses to practice medicine revoked, and in the end is not equipped to evaluate whether a prospective client is clinically depressed and therefore, according to accepted medical (and legal) thought, incapable of deciding to end his own life.
The University of Michigan seems to have come to terms with its association with Dr. Kevorkian, as a visit to his class picture is included on the health system tour given to prospective medical students. He is the only graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School given this dubious distinction.
October 23, 1991: Marjorie Wantz, a 58-year-old Sodus, Michigan, woman with pelvic pain, and Sherry Miller, a 43-year-old Roseville, Michigan, woman with multiple sclerosis. The deaths occur at a rented state park cabin near Lake Orion, Michigan. Wantz dies from the suicide machine's lethal drugs, Miller from carbon monoxide poisoning inhaled through a face mask.
September 26, 1992: Lois Hawes, 52, a Warren, Michigan, woman with lung and brain cancer, dies from carbon monoxide poisoning at the home of Kevorkian's assistant Neal Nicol in Waterford Township, Michigan.
November 26, 1994: Hours after Michigan's ban on assisted suicide expires, 72-year-old Margaret Garrish dies of carbon monoxide poisoning in her home in Royal Oak. She had arthritis and osteoporosis. Kevorkian is not present when police arrive.