The Resurrection of Dr. Death
Policy + Politics

The Resurrection of Dr. Death

There's a new media blitz in town, and it's called The Jack Kevorkian Show.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who served eight years in prison and two years on parole after being convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 for his role in ending a patient’s life, is now out and about again, proselytizing about the right-to-die, and doctor assisted suicide-- what Kevorkian calls "a medical service."

With the high cost of health care—particularly at the end of life—still very much part of the national debate on fiscal issues, Kevorkian raises the specter, once again, of what Sarah Palin called “death panels.” But Kevorikian doesn’t seem to care much about costs. He claims that euthanizing people who are in constant and excruciating pain, or who have lost their ability to move because of horrible diseases like ALS, is merciful and kind.

He's hoping more than a few states take heed. Currently, only Oregon, Washington, and Montana permit physician-assisted suicide in this country, with serious restrictions. (In Oregon, for example, two doctors must confirm a diagnosis of a terminal illness.) In a 1997 unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an individual is not guaranteed the right to commit suicide with the help of a physician, but upheld that regulation of medical practice belonged, as a general matter, to the states.

A Special Interview with Dr. Death
"You know when someone's suffering terribly," he told Anderson Cooper and an invited audience of about 150 at CNN's midtown Manhattan headquarters at the Time Warner Center on April 16. "No one can judge the state of the person's mind except the patient. It's what the patient wants and says that counts. This is important. This affects every human being in the world. And the doctor is the only person able to judge the state of the person's health."

Kevorkian taped a two-part taped interview with Anderson Cooper, one of the first interviews he gave since he left prison. More Kevorkian media followed on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, April 18, when Katie Couric interviewed Al Pacino. The award-winning actor plays Kevorkian in the new HBO biography that airs tonight called "You Don't Know Jack." It’s directed by Barry Levinson and also features Susan Sarandon and John Goodman.

Pacino called it a role unlike any other he’s had. "It gave me an opportunity to do something I haven't done before. I think that's what is interesting," he told Couric. "It's a kind of portrait of someone I don't know. In all my roles, I don't think there's anyone like that."

The actor said he studied the tapes of Kevorkian's by-now well-known 1998 interview with Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." It was during that interview that Kevorkian showed a video of his assisted suicide of ALS sufferer Thomas Youk, 52. Unlike his 130 other cases, Kevorkian directly injected a lethal substance into Youk’s arm; Kevorkian says Youk was unable to do so himself, because of his illness. He consented to the procedure, as did his family. But not long after Kevorkian showed that video, the law came calling. Kevorkian was charged, tried, and eventually found guilty by a Michigan jury. He was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison, served 8 years and 3 months of that sentence, and was released on parole in 2007. (See a chronology of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s life and assisted suicide campaign here.)

Small and shrunken now, but no less feisty or opinionated, Kevorkian is reigniting a long-running debate about end-of-life issues in many medical, legal, and political circles. The debates are ever more prominent now that people are living longer, often with degenerative or chronic diseases. "A good death is not a familiar idea in American culture," says Tony Back, M.D., of the department of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington, in a paper on medical ethics. "Some experts in palliative care describe the United States as a 'death-defying' culture, with a mass media that spotlights only youth and beauty. Yet public interest in care of the dying is currently high. The striking public interest in physician aid-in-dying is one obvious reason."

What follows are selected excerpts from Kevorkian's live interview on April 16 with Anderson Cooper along with questions and answers from the journalists who attended.

Anderson Cooper: Were you always interested in the process of death?

Jack Kevorkian: Yes, because I'm interested in what I’m going to face. I think everyone should be interested in it, and not afraid of it.

AC: Are you afraid of it?

JK: Just like everybody else, if you're healthy and you feel good, you don't want to end it all. You want to keep going. So I'm doing this for me. It's my right, based on the Constitution and the 9th amendment. It says, any right not listed in the Constitution is retained by the people, and you can't deny it.

AC: Jana Adkins was your first patient. What did she have?

JK: Alzheimer's. She was terrified of losing her memory and not knowing anything.

AC: After Jana Adkins, you realized you [were onto something]. Did it go the way you wanted it to?

JK: That was the first one. After that I thought, this is a different maneuver now. But I was nervous. When I was with her, my knees were shaking. I was doing things that weren't done by anybody else before. My last words to her were, “Have a good trip.” She was unconscious in eight seconds. I’m sure she even heard me say all of that.

AC: Were you afraid to lose your [medical] license?

JK: No. A piece of paper doesn’t control what I do.

AC: The difference with [your last patient], Thomas Youk, was that you actually injected him.

JK: Yes, I did it the way it actually should be done. A doctor injecting the patient. Because it's a medical service.

AC: And to those who say that you're playing God?

JK: Every doctor's playing God. Anything you do to affect the natural process, you're playing God.

AC: Would you do it again--help somebody die?

JK: When there's no chance of my being thrown in the slammer.

[The Fiscal Times, to Kevorkian]: If and when the time comes when you would need the ‘medical service’ that you've provided to others, would you end your own life?

JK: I would want a doctor--a colleague--who is willing to do it and not be threatened. Someone who knows what he's doing.

[TFT]: And would you have people around you—family, friends?

JK: Absolutely. Family, friends, anybody who wants to be there. I'm the patient then. I’m calling the tune.