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Dr. Jack Kevorkian – Angel of Mercy or Devil in Disguise?

Updated on May 28, 2012
"An Evening with Dr. Jack Kevorkian," UCLA, January 2011.
"An Evening with Dr. Jack Kevorkian," UCLA, January 2011. | Source

Jack Kevorkian, who died on June 3, 2011, at age 83, stirred impassioned national and international debate with his outspoken, almost belligerent, defense of euthanasia, assisted suicide, for people who were not just terminally ill but suffering. Yet, many believe he was a powerful force for positive social change. And in his hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan, he was reportedly polite, funny, kind and well liked.

The facts of his involvement in end-of-life issues are readily available in news reports and biographies – the claims he assisted in 130 suicides, the charges and trials for murder, the airing of an assisted suicide on the news program “60 Minutes” that finally lead to his conviction for second-degree murder in 1999 and subsequent eight years in prison.

Dr. Kevorkian first made headlines for his right-to-die stand in 1990 when he assisted in the death of Janet Adkins, who had Alzheimer’s disease. When he was finally released from prison in 2007, he never assisted in another suicide, but spoke at gatherings around the country on the issues.

Critics and Supporters

Even setting aside the arguments against Jack Kevorkian based on purely religious beliefs, there still remain many angry, impassioned critics against Dr. Kevorkian, even within communities who support more humane options for the dying such as many medical practitioners and hospice care advocates as well as right-to-die organizations such as the Hemlock Society.

Talk to people who knew him, on the other hand, and you find an affable, creative, intelligent, and rather endearing presence. The librarian at the city library who saw him almost every day says how much she will miss him. He used to ask for references on such a range of topics that she couldn't recall a single one, just her impression of his wide and varied interests. He would spend hours reading, then typing on the computer, often asking for help on how to save documents or other simple computer operations.

It wasn't what he did, it was the way he did it.

For others, there was a disturbing, almost creepy aspect to Dr. Kevorkian’s actions. Take a look at his paintings (Dr. Kevorkian was a painter and jazz musician on the side) and most people notice a kind of spooky, gruesome aspect to his work. That impression gets worse when they learn the theme of some of his paintings – such as a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse – and that he even used his own blood in some paintings.

Dr. Kevorkian often painted the human skull in his artwork.
Dr. Kevorkian often painted the human skull in his artwork. | Source

This sensibility also seems to have affected the way he conducted his assisted suicides. The machines he used conjure up images of a Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory with tubes, wires and attachments. In1989 Dr. Kevorkian built his first apparatus for $30 with scraps from garage sales and junkyards. He called it Thanatron (sounds like a bit of science fiction, doesn’t it?), which is Greek for "death machine." The Thanatron involved the suicide person pushing a button that released drugs or chemicals that would painlessly end his or her life, potassium chloride being the lethal agent.

When Dr. Kevorkian lost his medical license and no longer had access to the drugs he needed, he invented the Mercitron, a canister of carbon monoxide attached to a facemask with a tube and a makeshift handle turned by the suicide person.

The locations of some of the suicides could be unsettling as well, such as seedy motel rooms, trailers, a remote cabin, and the back of Dr. Kevorkian’s rusty Volkswagen Vanagon. Dead bodies were left behind in motel rooms, sometimes two at a time, and in cars parked outside hospital emergency rooms.

In response to criticism, Dr. Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, who became famous for handling the defense for six murder trials against Dr. Kevorkian and even ran for governor of Michigan, published an essay in which he stated, "I've never met any doctor who lived by such exacting guidelines as Kevorkian.”


Walk-In "Obitariums"

He reportedly wanted to create walk-in centers where people could die quickly, humanely and safely. Dr. Kevorkian said, “It's a legitimate ethical medical practice as it was in ancient Rome and Greece." Organs would be harvested and made available to the needy. Doctors would be able to perform “medical experiments” during and after the process to aid medical research. Such experiments would be "entirely ethical spin-offs" of suicide, he wrote in his 1991 book "Prescription: Medicide - The Goodness of Planned Death."

"Somebody has to do something for suffering humanity," Dr. Kevorkian once said. "I put myself in my patients' place. This is something I would want."

In some minds, however, he was a bizarre and dangerous man, taunting authorities, dreaming aloud about establishing "obitoriums," and to these critics his ideas meant mass suicide would become public policy with an attendant bureaucracy.

Others say that he had witnessed the suffering of terminally ill patients, and he became convinced that they had a moral right to end their lives when the pain became unbearable, and that doctors should assist in this process.

As the famous broadcast journalist Mike Wallace said, "I am an old man. I'd be the first, if necessary, to go to Kevorkian." Wallace also said that he could imagine using Kevorkian's services if he were suffering from a lengthy and painful disease. "You have the right as a human being to do what you want to do with yourself," said Wallace.

More from the critics...

Dr. Kevorkian seemed to polarize opinion with fervent passion on both sides. Critics of Dr. Kevorkian claim that many if not most of the people who committed suicide with Dr. Kevorkian's help were not terminally ill. They complained that his counseling was not comprehensive or long enough. Allegedly at least 19 patients died with assistance less than 24 hours after first meeting Dr. Kevorkian.

To be fair, Dr. Kevorkian never said he limited his assistance only to those proven to be terminally ill. He stated he was interested in relieving people’s suffering and allowing them to make the decision about their lives themselves, empowering them to die with dignity by taking control back from the doctors and putting that power in the hands of each individual.

One critic said that given that Dr. Kevorkian was a pathologist, he was unable to conduct a psychiatric exam, and that some of his patients were simply unhappy for reasons other than their medical condition. This included one assisted suicide in which it is discovered that the woman was not really ill, but was probably depressed because her husband recently left her.

At trial it was stated that at least one person who committed suicide was determined to have had no physical sign of disease. It was also claimed that Dr. Kevorkian never referred at least 17 patients to pain specialists when they were complaining about chronic pain, and that he sometimes did not even request a complete medical record for his patients.

On the other hand...

In defense of his methods, Dr. Kevorkian had a way of making even more controversial statements, such as this:

"Well, let's take what people think is a dignified death. Christ - was that a dignified death? Do you think it's dignified to hang from wood with nails through your hands and feet bleeding, hang for three or four days slowly dying, with people jabbing spears into your side, and people jeering you? Do you think that's dignified? Not by a long shot. Had Christ died in my van with people around Him who loved Him, the way it was, it would be far more dignified. In my rusty van." – Dr. Jack Kevorkian

Dr. Kevorkian inspired a wide range of supporters as well. In 2010, HBO produced a movie about Jack Kevorkian that earned an Emmy for actor Al Pacino in the lead role. During his acceptance speech, Mr. Pacino said it was a pleasure to "try to portray someone as brilliant and interesting and unique" as Dr. Kevorkian.

Susan Wolf, professor of law and medicine at University of Minnesota Law School, said, "It sometimes takes a very outrageous individual to put an issue on the public agenda.” She said the debate he engendered "in a way cleared public space for more reasonable voices to come in."

Attorney Fieger said, "Through his courage and determination he shined a light on a right that I believe, he believed, and I think most of us believe that we hold innately, that tens and thousands of people now are no longer abandoned to suffer until dead because of his convictions and his courage. I personally will miss him."

Jack Kevorkian answering questions at UCLA with lawyer Mayer Morganroth (right) and former Foreign Minister of Armenia, Raffi Hovannisian (left), January 2011.
Jack Kevorkian answering questions at UCLA with lawyer Mayer Morganroth (right) and former Foreign Minister of Armenia, Raffi Hovannisian (left), January 2011. | Source

"He was such a great guy."

Others who knew him confirmed this personal sentiment. Clawson, Michigan, resident Kimberly Middlewood said after hearing the news of Dr. Kevorkian's death. "I hope he is remembered as a selfless hero who served eight years in prison as the result of ending suffering."

One shopkeeper who knew Dr Kevorkian said, “He was such a great guy, very unimposing, he was always nice to me, never had a bad word to say about anyone, never tried to push his political ideas on me.” His waitress said he was “such a sweet gentleman; he laughed, he was funny to be around. I was very sad to hear about his death.”

So, was this well-liked, kind old man, Dr. Kevorkian, just being deliberately outrageous? Perhaps so. Dr. Kevorkian himself speaking on the CBS broadcast, "60 Minutes" said, "the issue's got to be raised to the level where it is finally decided."

Social Change

Though many deplore Dr. Kevorkian's methods, he has increased public awareness of some very difficult ethical issues about death and dying. Medical technology has prolonged life and created more situations of extended life being accompanied by great pain and suffering. Dr. Kevorkian's efforts to assist people in their death, though perhaps not meeting professional standards of diagnosis and care, have sparked a needed discussion on these issues.

No question he was a gadfly for social change. It's surely true that Dr. Kevorkian forced Americans to confront the issue of whether people had the right to have a medical professional help them safely and painlessly end their lives. Even though few states have approved physician-assisted suicide, laws were put in place in Oregon in 1997 and Washington State in 2009, and a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling effectively legalized the practice in that state.


What do you think?

It could be argued that Dr. Kevorkian's efforts contributed to the deeper acceptance and growing popularly of the hospice movement that was just beginning to be a real force in the United States in the 1980s. The hospice movement of compassion and foresight to adopt innovative palliative and end-of-life practices would transform the experience of growing old and dying. Huge improvements have come about in vastly improved end-of-life care, including hospice and better pain management.

Did Dr. Kevorkian do more good than harm?

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    • savvydating profile image


      4 years ago

      Interesting article. What most people do not know is that Kevorkian was never licensed to practice on living patients. He was an "unremarkable" pathologist, who had a habit of job hopping and whose license was (twice) revoked. Furthermore, he had exhibited a "macabre fixation" with death since childhood. In later years, he would go into hospitals "Just to watch people die."

      Also, carbon monoxide is not not a form of pain control; its only use is to cause death and is not accepted or condoned by the medical community.

      You have to wonder about a man who promoted Hitler's art and who publicly stated about the victims of the Holocaust, "They had a lot of publicity, but they didn't suffer as much." (as the Armenians)

      Dr. Kevorkian was consumed by death. He took the life of Thomas Hyde, age 24, who still had many years of productive life left in him, but who was depressed due to having just been diagnosed with ALS, which is why his wife thought he should die--to stop the emotional pain. This is not progress, it is murder. Even the ancient Greeks despised suicide, although the Hemlock society will tell you otherwise. But... history doesn't lie.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      4 years ago from North Carolina

      Rated UP and Interesting. I especially enjoyed the quotes you included from ordinary people. :)

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      No one can judge Dr. Kevorkian or anyone else until that person give up everything and spend 24/7, years to provide care for their loved ones, particularly spouse or parent.

      I did, and support Dr. K for his vision and courage.

      Until the system and the people who condemned Dr. K experienced first hand the pain and suffering, they would understand death is the ultimate end which human has no choice to change or alter it.

      Why don't we stop unconscionable wars where innocent women, children and all other people died untimely

      Why don't we pray for those victims at the time we pray for own sons, brothers, cousins who are sent to the battle fields

      We love our family and all loved ones, other people from various parts of the world are also human and they do have a dream to live with dignity like we all us . .

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Thanks, CM Young, for stopping by and for your comment. As weird as Dr. K was, he did have a rationale for the suicide contraptions he worked up. They were designed so that people (such as those with MS) who were unable to take a pill or use a needle could administer their own lethal dosage with just the slight movement of a finger. That way the suicide person made the final decision and took the action to implement it.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Although I think people who are terminally ill deserve the right to end their lives on their own terms, I think Dr. Kevorkian seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with euthanasia. I mean, creating suicide contraptions as opposed to people just taking a lethal injection or pill is rather strange.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      You did a nice job on your article about Dr. K., Denise. Thanks for your comment!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Good article. I also covered the story of Jack's death in a recent hub. Welcome to hubpages-I'm originally from MI

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      What a lovely comment, Jaye. Thank you so much. I used to live in Dr. K's hometown, and there was always kind of an awareness that he was around, being such a famous figure. His attorney became famous for representing him, too, Geoffrey Figer, and even ran for governor.

      Best wishes to you on HubPages!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      7 years ago from Deep South, USA

      This is a well-written and well-balanced article about a topic (and person) still quite controversial, an issue of ethics that raises impassioned argument, pro and con.

      It was interesting to read what people who lived in Dr. Kervorkian's home town said about him.

      After Dr. K's recent death, I read comments by people who were angry he didn't die via suicide, assisted or self-induced. These came from both people who agreed with his views and those who vehemently did not.

      You wrote at the end of your profile, "Let the writing begin!"

      I say, let the writing continue, JS. Welcome to Hubpages! Jaye

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you have hit the nail on the head that if "there can still be quality of life and also healing of relationship rifts" then there is value in allowing life to takes its slower course.

      Nonetheless, if an individual is ready to die and suffering cannot be alleviated, who am I to say that person should not have the right to decide?

      In my opinion, it is an ethical dilemma, and should remain an open question to be engaged as appropriate, rather than making a hard and fast rule either way.

      Thank you for your positive feedback. Best regards.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      7 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub and you've presented both sides of the controversy he sparked in a thoughtful manner.

      I admired Kevorkian for standing up for what he believed in at the cost of spending time in prison, but I've always felt conflicted about the topic of euthenasia. My strongest beliefs lean more toward alleviating the emotional, spiritual and physical pain that many terminally ill patients experience and toward that end, I strongly support hospice care, especially when it can be given at home. When a patient's needs for love, spiritual care and physical care, including effective pain relief measures are met, there can still be quality of life and also healing of relationship rifts during one's final days.

      Also, as you already pointed out, someone who is severely depressed and suicidal- especially in response to recent loss, may benefit greatly from mental health care and no longer want to end their lives.

      I didn't know that some states have successfully passed doctor assisted suicide laws.

      Thanks for an informative and thought-provoking hub. Am rating it up and useful.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Stump Parrish - Thank you for your provocative comments! (By the way, I looked up your profile and see that you "plan on becoming a cranky, smart assed old man who irritates the hell out of everyone." Perhaps that is simply another definition of a gadfly, one who annoys others into awareness.

      You raise questions about situations that are just hard to understand or accept. Seemingly intelligent people can have some of the most absurd beliefs! I think education is an important part of a long term solution...raising the level of people's thinking. One would think the media would help, but most people just listen to and watch what they already believe rather than entertaining new ideas.

      Thanks for stopping by. Very best wishes, JSP

      Lady_E, I so appreciate your tolerant attitude. We may not agree with other people's choices, but we can allow others to decide for themselves. As you said, we do not really know what others are going through. Thank you for your comments. Regards, JSP

    • Lady_E profile image


      7 years ago from London, UK

      Very interesting but sensitive article. No one ever knows how much turmoil others go through. I wish people didn't take this option... but it's their decision.

      I just wish they think it through with themselves and loved ones...

      It's nice you wrote the article.

    • profile image

      savoir faire 

      7 years ago

      I liked this article. It was balanced, informative, and integrated a number of sources of information well. I am glad that hospice care will be available to me if I reach the point of chronic illness and unremitting pain. I also hope that the option of assisted suicide will be available to me, without my having to go to Oregon. I would be happy to bring my medical record with me. It is hard for me to think of this sadness at the end of my life, but we will all face this dicision at some point. It is better for us to be knowledgeable about the options. Thank you JS for writing this article.

    • Stump Parrish profile image

      Stump Parrish 

      7 years ago from Don't have a clue, I'm lost.

      I know that most of the oppisition to assisted suicide comes from the religious communities. I don't understand why these organizations fight so hard for the rights of the unborn and as soon as the fetus is born, it looses all control over itself. If right to life were actually supported, you would have to agree to right to death. If your life is yours and yours alone, how would anyone believe they have the right to intefere with that life? These same organizations have no problem fighting for the right to sacrifice their children and the children of others for religious beliefs. They can force the death of a child by legally denying the child, life saving medical care. In 44 states in America you can legally kill your child and yet not yourself. Why are children expendable and termanilly ill people must be kept alive. The only people that profit from keeping termanilly ill people alive against their wishes, is the medical industry that gets to charge medicare and medicade for the expenses of keeping a corpse alive. Are corporate profits really that important to people watching from the sidelines? The less informed about a situation or subject people are, the more qualified they feel they are to make the best decisions about the situation or subject. I don't know these people and if I was in a position that made me think suicide was the best option, why is it any business of people I have never met and never will. People incapable of living a life that resembles the teachings of their god, presume to have the right to make sure I don't break any rules from their god they feel should actually be obeyed, by everyon else.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Thank you so much for your comment. I am sure you are on to something when you say hospice is not always the best/only solution. I know that's so, if only from the general premise that nothing works for everyone or every situation, but it would be interesting to hear about other solutions that are better in different situations.

      Since my father would have greatly benefited from hospice, but did not have that option, as a result I am probably more appreciate of what it has to offer than I would be otherwise.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Good work. Hospice is a blessing, but it is not always the best/only solution.


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