SKOUSEN | home
Readings | What an A-Bomb-anation! | Culture and Pain | Debate - Dialogue | Suicide - Do's & Don'ts | Look at the View - A. Quindlen | Conscious Dying - A. Quindlen | Aging Boomers - Dying with Dignity | Dying with Support, Dignity, Love | Baby Boomer - Gifts of Dying | Dilemmas in Organ Donation | Kevorkian | Selections on the Meaning of Life | Kirby: Write your own Obit | Kirby: You're the star at your own funeral | End of Life resources | Blumner: open seasons on atheists | The Grand Inquisitor
Who Is Jack Kevorkian, Really?
He advocates death with dignity. Others call it murder.
By John Corry
At his law office in Southfield, Mich., on March 28, 1994, Geoffrey Fieger gathered
reporters to announce that his client Jack Kevorkian was challenging the American
medical community. An elderly woman was in profound pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
Both her legs had been amputated, and she'd lost sight in one eye. Unless doctors were
willing to treat her pain, Kevorkian would help her die.
Dr. Pavan Grover, a pain specialist, read about the press conference. He believed he
could help the woman, so he called Fieger's office. "I was blown off," he says. "I called a
number of times. To this day I don't know if she knew of my calls."
Eight months later, on November 26, 1994, 71-year-old Margaret Garrish, with Kevorkian
present, died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Garrish was the 21st person to receive Jack Kevorkian's assistance. Since then, he
says, he has helped more than a hundred others die, either by inhaling carbon monoxide
or by intravenous poisoning. His work culminated in the death of Thomas Youk on
September 17, 1998, as Kevorkian videotaped himself injecting the 52-year-old man with
a lethal dose of chemicals, then played the tape for Mike Wallace on CBS's "60
Dr. Grover believes that for Garrish and others who have died in Kevorkian's presence,
death was not the only option. "Margaret Garrish's affliction wasn't life-threatening. I've
had patients who before discovering they had options, considered Kevorkian their last
hope, and I firmly believe this woman could have been helped. I have to wonder why
Kevorkian wouldn't let me."
Grover isn't the first to question Kevorkian's methods. While supporters of Kevorkian say
he is an angel of mercy who helps patients die with dignity, some critics say he is more
accurately described as a serial killer.
Jack Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Mich., on May 26, 1928, the son of Armenian
refugees. He grew up with stories about family members who died in the mass killings of
Armenians by Turks during World War I, what he calls the Armenian holocaust.
"I wish my forefathers went through what the Jews did," he said in a 1991 interview. "The
Jews were gassed. Armenians were killed in every conceivable way. They were drowned,
burned, heads were smashed in vises. So the Holocaust doesn't interest me. They didn't
suffer as much."
But the Holocaust victims did, in fact, interest him. While condemning the Nazi regime
and the methods of Nazi doctors, Kevorkian has also claimed that some death-camp
experiments had redeeming value, especially, he wrote, "because similar human
experiments can never again be done."
Kevorkian graduated from University of Michigan Medical School. In the mid-1950s, as a
pathology resident at a Detroit hospital, he began experiments that would help earn him
the nickname Dr. Death. He made regular "death rounds," looking for patients who were
about to die. He would tape open the person's eyelids, then photograph the corneas to
see if blood vessels changed in appearance at the moment of death.
In the early 1960s Kevorkian experimented with blood transfusions from corpses. He also
called for experiments on consenting death-row prisoners. "It would be a unique privilege
to experiment on a doomed human being," he wrote. And he would expand
experimentation to all classes of humans facing "imminent and unavoidable death," as he
says. "No aim could be too remote, too simple, too absurd-and no experiment too
Even Kevorkian's hobby, painting, reflects his obsession with death. Since the 1960s, he
has filled canvases with scenes of violence and death. For the painting "Genocide," he
used his own blood to stain the frame.
Death on Demand
Kevorkian says his interest in death hurt his career. He left the Pontiac, Mich., General
Hospital in 1966 over disagreements with the chief pathologist, and his next post at
Wyandotte General Hospital lasted less than a year. A diagnostic clinic he opened failed,
he says, because doctors refused to refer patients. He worked sporadically at several
hospitals before retiring in 1982.
Retirement gave him more time to pursue the medical subspecialty he'd created:
"obitiatry," the doctoring of death. In 1986, in the obscure German journal Medicine and
Law, he outlined an elaborate plan for experimenting on humans facing death, as long as
formal consent was obtained. Even infants, children and the mentally incompetent could
be used, assuming consent from a legal proxy. If the subjects were still alive after the
studies were completed, organ removal or a lethal drug would induce death.
In 1987 he placed ads in local papers: "Doctor consultant for the terminally ill who
choose death w/dignity." His business cards read "Jack Kevorkian, M.D. Bioethics and
Obitiatry. Special death counseling. By appointment only."
On his kitchen table he built what he called a Mercitron, the world's first suicide machine.
He peddled the story to reporters, and found himself on TV's "Donahue."
The husband of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's
disease, heard about Kevorkian and arranged for a meeting in Detroit. "In the name of
human rationality, which you're beginning to lose, I've decided to help," Kevorkian tells
her in the videotape he made of their encounter.
The video also shows Kevorkian questioning Adkins to determine her mental state. But at
times he seems to guide her answers, and on several occasions she appears confused.
Medical experts would note later that Adkins's difficulties should have indicated to
Kevorkian that she may not have been capable of providing informed consent to her
Nonetheless, two days later, on June 4, 1990, in the back of his Volkswagen van,
Kevorkian performed his first assisted suicide, although it didn't go as smoothly as he
might have liked. He failed four times before finding a vein in Adkins's arm. Then she hit a
switch on the Mercitron, injecting potassium chloride. "Have a nice trip," Kevorkian told
her as she died.
Oakland County, Michigan, assistant prosecutor Michael Modelski argued for an
injunction against further suicides, saying Kevorkian wanted to be the "Domino's of
death," delivering his services like pizzas. Kevorkian asked the court to let him continue:
"It's a little experiment.You have absolute control. Try it. If it doesn't work, we quit.
Where's the damage?"
The judge denied Kevorkian's request and imposed the injunction. But he ignored it, even
after his medical license was suspended in 1991.
Autopsies brought stunning revelations about Kevorkian's clients: many have not been
terminally ill, and some were even without physical disease. Dr. L.J. Dragovic, the
Oakland County chief medical examiner, says that only 16 of the 69 clients he autopsied
had been terminally ill; 48 others had been suffering from a nonterminal disease. In the
remaining five cases, Dragovic found no anatomical evidence of disease at all.
For example, 58-year-old Marjorie Wantz insisted she was suffering from some
undiagnosed form of pelvic pain. Despite several operations, she claimed no relief. Wantz
wanted to die, and Kevorkian obliged. When Dragovic performed an autopsy, however, he
found no evidence of a physical basis for her pain.
Psychologist Kalman Kaplan, director of the Suicide Research Center at Chicago's
Michael Reese Hospital, is conducting a study of Kevorkian's assisted suicides. He says
of the 47 cases he has reviewed, "There is little evidence that Kevorkian consulted with
the victim's physician or psychiatrist."
Although he says he employs an extensive screening process, Kevorkian acts with great
speed-many of his clients die within a day or so of their first meeting. He has admitted
that when helping someone die, he does not take depression into account if it is rooted in
a crippling or terminal disease. Kevorkian argues that a person's level of suffering and
wish to die are more important factors.
The parents of Karen Shoffstall believe depression was a factor in her 1997 death.
Shoffstall was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992. Although the disease was
taking its toll, she still managed to lead a relatively active life in Long Island, N.Y.
However, in 1996 she told her mother in Ontario that she was contemplating suicide.
Karen's mother offered help, but Karen declined. Finally, a year later, the 34-year-old flew
to Detroit and registered in a motel. A maid found her body the next day. She had died
from a potassium chloride injection while Kevorkian was present. He had never spoken to
her neurologist or any member of her family.
"She could have come home," says her father. "Kevorkian and Fieger are very bad men."
Kevorkian hasn't hesitated to help younger people die. In February 1998 he assisted
Roosevelt Dawson, a 21-year-old quadriplegic. Dawson was being hospitalized against
his wishes, but a court ordered that he be allowed to leave. Members of Not Dead Yet, an
organization that opposes legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, tried to meet
with him, but when they arrived at the hospital, he was already gone. Within hours of
leaving the hospital, he died at his mother's home, with Kevorkian present.
In October 1997 Kevorkian announced he would begin "harvesting" human organs. Last
June, when he helped Joseph
Tushkowski, a 45-year-old quadriplegic, to die, he removed the man's kidneys-tying off
one artery but leaving another open-and offered them for transplant. No one accepted
Afterward, Michael Odette, an attorney who represented Kevorkian in civil trials,
announced he was dropping Kevorkian as a client. "After the organ deal," he says, "my
seven-year-old son told me, `Dad, you shouldn't represent him. They should throw him in
jail and melt the key.'"
Above the Law?
Medical examiner Dragovic declines to recognize any of the cases in which Kevorkian
has been involved as physician-assisted suicide. "I view him as a serial executioner," he
Adds psychologist Kalman Kaplan: "Kevorkian is no longer a licensed professional. He
has no expertise in internal medicine, psychology or psychiatry. He is in no way qualified
to make life-and-death decisions when it comes to people, some of whom have
documented psychological problems and most of whom have no documented terminal
Kevorkian has been brought to trial for his role in assisted suicides on four occasions, all
in Michigan. He was found not guilty in three cases, and a mistrial was declared in the
But Kevorkian made a misstep when he injected Thomas Youk with a lethal dose of
potassium chloride last September. Youk's death was videotaped by Kevorkian and later
broadcast on the TV show "60 Minutes," where Kevorkian challenged prosecutors in
"They must charge me, because if they do not, that means they don't think it's a crime,"
Kevorkian said. "They don't need any more evidence, do they?"
Prosecutors took up the challenge and put Kevorkian on trial for his role in Youk's death.
On March 26, 1999, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and delivery of a
controlled substance by a Michigan jury. On April 13 Kevorkian was sentenced to ten to
25 years in prison.
In sentencing Kevorkian, Judge Jessica Cooper said his conviction was not about
euthanasia. "It was all about you, sir. It was about lawlessness. It was about disrespect
for a society that exists and flourishes because of the strength of the legal system."
The judge added: "And you had the audacity to go on national television, show the world
what you did and dare the legal system to stop you. Well, sir, consider yourself stopped."