Jack Kevorkian, the zealous, straight-talking American doctor known as “Dr. Death” for his lifelong crusade to legalize physician-assisted suicide died on Friday at a Detroit area hospital, the Associated Press reported. He was 83 years old.
Dr. Kevorkian spent decades campaigning for the legalization of euthanasia. He served eight years in prison and was arrested numerous times for helping more than 130 patients commit suicide between 1990 and 2000, using injections, carbon monoxide and his infamous suicide machine, built from scraps for $30. Those he aided had terminal conditions such as multiple sclerosis, ALS and malignant brain tumors.
When asked in a 2010 interview by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about how it felt to take a patient’s life, Dr. Kevorkian said, “I didn’t do it to end a life. I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering — what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?”
Dying, he believed, should be an intimate and dignified process, something that many terminally ill are denied, he said.
He garnered a fair amount of support from other medical practitioners, but most believed he was an extremist. In 1995, a group of doctors in Michigan publicly voiced their support for Dr. Kevorkian’s philosophy stating that they supported a “merciful, dignified, medically assisted termination of life.”
Shortly after, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that many doctors in Oregon and Michigan supported some form of doctor-assisted suicide in certain cases.
One of his greatest victories was when, in March of 1996, a United States Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that mentally competent, terminally ill adults have a constitutional right to die with the aid of medical experts and family members. It was the first federal endorsement of its kind.
But ultimately, Dr. Kevorkian’s impact was not in the American legal system, but in raising public awareness about euthanasia and the suffering of the terminally ill.
In the 1990s, the peak of his time in the limelight, he notoriously tried publicity stunts of all sorts to draw attention to his cause. In one instance, he showed up at trial dressed in colonial attire. He also taped one of his patient’s deaths and gave the video to the CBS News television show “60 Minutes” for broadcast. During this period, his face was constantly on television and in newspapers, and he happily agreed to a barrage of media interviews so he could share his views. His crusade and antics were documented in a 2010 HBO film, in which Al Pacino portrayed him as a passionate, but intolerably single-minded crusader.
“He was involved in this because he thought it was right, and whatever anyone wants to say about him, I think that’s the truth,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “He didn’t do it for the money, he didn’t do it for the publicity, he wasn’t living a luxurious life – he wanted change.”
But despite his best efforts, Dr. Kevorkian was, for the most part, a lone soldier, with an abrasive personality that lived alone in a small apartment in Michigan. Though he was the most well known figure in fighting for euthanasia’s legalization, the legislative results of his efforts were largely unsuccessful, if not counterproductive.