DETROIT Once known as “Dr. Death” in his passionate crusade for physician-assisted suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian these days is Inmate No. 284797 in a remote Michigan prison where he serves time for murder.
Kevorkian’s sentencing in April ended a saga in which the retired pathologist sometimes left bodies at motels, coroners’ offices and hospital emergency rooms; burned state orders against him; showed up at court in costume and challenged authorities to make his actions legal or stop him.
But while assisted suicide’s most visible advocate has been silenced, activists on both sides say their efforts continue.
Supporters point to legal and legislative efforts in several states to give people the right to choose when and how their lives will end.
Opponents, led by the medical establishment, say they are working to make it easier to treat debilitating pain effectively and make suicide, with or without a physician’s involvement, less appealing.
Both sides agree that Kevorkian sparked their efforts.
Kevorkian “had the very positive effect of galvanizing a lot of people, making them see what horrible straits some people were in,” said Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, a right-to-die lobbying group.
“Having Jack Kevorkian finally be convicted was a great success,” said Cal Montgomery, a policy analyst with Not Dead Yet, a Forest Park, Ill.-based advocacy group for disabled people.
By Kevorkian’s count, he assisted in 130 deaths since helping Alzheimer’s patient Janet Adkins die in his rusted Volkswagen van in 1990. Four felony trials resulted in three acquittals and a mistrial.
Then in September 1998, Kevorkian videotaped himself injecting a lethal mix of barbiturates into 52-year-old Thomas Youk, immobilized by Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kevorkian gave the tape to “60 Minutes,” which broadcast parts of it two months later.
“I’ve got to force them to act,” Kevorkian said on the CBS program. “They must charge me. Because if they do not, that means they don’t think it was a crime… .”
Authorities did act, charging Kevorkian with first-degree murder and other charges. He insisted on serving as his own attorney.
“Honestly now, do you see a criminal? Do you see a murderer?” Kevorkian asked jurors. “… If you do, then you must convict.”
And so they did, finding Kevorkian, 71, guilty of second-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 10 years to 25 years in prison, time he is serving at the Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula. He will become eligible for parole in May 2007.
He no longer wants to talk to the media. He shares a room with two other inmates and passes his time reading.
Even if Kevorkian were not in prison, said his attorney, Mayer Morganroth, “he feels that … he would not assist with suicides any longer, and the courts are now the appropriate place for the issue to be resolved.”
Michigan’s ban on assisted suicide is being challenged in court by Robert Sedler, a professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University in Detroit. Mr. Sedler’s federal lawsuit claims that the 14th Amendment includes the right “to be relieved from unbearable pain and suffering.”
The suit was filed on behalf of a family practitioner in Pontiac and an internist in Grand Blanc, neither of whom is treating patients with intractable pain, Mr. Sedler said.
“They want to be allowed ahead of time to help end their [patients’] suffering if they think it’s medically appropriate,” he said. “They can’t do it because if they did, they would end up like Dr. Kevorkian.”
Assisted suicide has been legal for several years in Oregon. Right-to-die legislation is pending in some states, including New Hampshire and California. The issue will be on the 2000 ballot in Maine unless lawmakers legalize the practice.