The life of 'Dr. Death': Kevorkian and physician-assisted suicide

June 7, 2011

Assisted suicide-rights advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian died on Friday at the age of 83, leaving behind a controversial legacy that reshaped the national debate over physician-assisted suicide.

Kevorkian, a Michigan-born pathologist, rose to national fame in 1990 when he first used his "suicide machine" to end the life of an Alzheimer's patient. Across the next decade, Kevorkian helped end the lives of more than 130 people, leaving many of them alone in hotel rooms and hospital EDs. However, Kevorkian did not seek to determine whether the patients actually were close to death, nor did he attempt to provide counseling, the New York Times reports. In 1999, Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree homicide and sentenced to prison.

Although many individuals described Kevorkian as "a difficult man who helped advance the cause of assisted suicide for those with terminal illness," Kevorkian was a polarizing figure in the debate over physician-assisted suicide, the Times reports. For some assisted suicide advocates, Kevorkian was the "wrong face" on the right issue, and they have struggled for the past 20 years to separate themselves from the infamous physician. According to a Portland, Ore., lawyer who helped drafted the state's Death With Dignity Act, Kevorkian would have been put in prison under the state's assisted suicide law. "We ended up using him as an example of how not to do it," he said.

However, the president of Compassion and Choices called Kevorkian's death "the end of an era," noting that he pushed the issue of end-of-life suffering into the public discourse."[P]eople either thought he was a saint and martyred or the devil incarnate," she said. "To us, he was neither, but certainly pivotal to our movement." According to a former executive director of Death With Dignity National Center, if Kevorkian had not raised the issue, "folks in Oregon and other proponents of assisted dying would have needed to invent him" (Schwartz, Times, 6/4; AP/Washington Post, 6/4; Chua-Eoan, Time, 6/3).