Dr. Death’s Dark Side

Carol Sutton of 'Not Dead Yet' protests against Kevorkian in 2007.
Carol Sutton of 'Not Dead Yet' protests against Kevorkian in 2007. (photo: Reuters)

It has been reported this week that Al Pacino has been signed to play convicted murderer Dr. Jack Kevorkian in an upcoming HBO production, You Don’t Know Jack.

The HBO movie apparently will be based on a sympathetic biography of Kevorkian, the death-obsessed “assisted suicide” proponent who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999, that was co-authored by a lifelong friend and by a man who served as Kevorkian’s assistant for 25 years.

By way of a little Internet research, I learned the You Don’t Know Jack project has actually been floating around Hollywood for several years. And in this November 2005 post at the disability rights website Ragged Edge Online, Dave Reynolds pointed out some important facts about “Dr. Death” that aren’t likely to be included in a pro-Kevorkian film project:

A study published in the December 2000 New England Journal of Medicine revealed some of the “actual story” behind Kevorkian’s passionate campaign. An analysis of data from the Oakland County medical examiner’s office showed that only 25% of those Kevorkian assisted there had terminal illnesses, and only 35% were in pain.

Additionally, 71% of those he helped die were women, leading researchers to conclude that women were particularly vulnerable to his crusade, because suicide rates are usually lower among women than among men.

Many disability rights advocates, led by Not Dead Yet, have long opposed Kevorkian’s crusade to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. They have argued that doing so would essentially make it “open season” for people with disabilities and anyone else who is considered undesirable or a “burden” on society — particularly at a time when the cost of health care is high. They have pointed out that most of those Kevorkian helped end their lives were in emotional, psychological or social crises, not in the final stages of terminal illnesses, as was originally believed.

Here are some more unsavory facts about Kavorkian, gleaned from an entry about him in the Legal Encyclopedia that’s posted here at Answers.com:

Kevorkian’s efforts in the cause of assisted suicide are only the latest in a series of his unconventional, even morbid, attempts to make a name for himself in the area of medical research. Kevorkian earned the nickname Dr. Death in 1956, only three years after obtaining his medical degree, when he began making what he called death rounds at the Detroit-area hospital where he was employed. During these rounds, he examined dead bodies in order to collect evidence supporting his contention that the time of a person’s death could be determined from the condition of the person’s eyes. Kevorkian caused more controversy — and lost his job at the University of Michigan — in 1960 when he published the book Medical Research and the Death Penalty, in which he argued for the vivisection (the conduct of medical experiments on live subjects) of prisoners sentenced to death. Claiming it would be “a unique privilege … to be able to experiment on a doomed human being,” he outlined a plan in which the prisoner-subject would be anesthetized at the time of execution, then used for scientific experiments lasting hours or months and finally executed using a lethal overdose. According to Kevorkian, this would create both a more painless execution and greater advances in medical research. The use of condemned prisoners for medical experimentation and organ donation has remained a consistent theme for Kevorkian. His 1991 book Prescription: Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death rehashes these same arguments while also making a case for assisted suicide. In another unsuccessful venture, Kevorkian re-created experiments conducted by Soviet scientists by taking blood from recently deceased individuals and transfusing it to live patients.