How Medically Assisted Suicide Works

Who Was Jack Kevorkian?
Assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian walks out of the Lakeland Correctional Facility after his release June 1, 2007 in Coldwater, Michigan.
Assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian walks out of the Lakeland Correctional Facility after his release June 1, 2007 in Coldwater, Michigan.
Carlos Osorio-Pool/Getty Images

Until Brittany Maynard, probably the person most responsible for bringing the issue of end-of-life choices to the forefront of American minds was Dr. Jack Kervorkian.

His nickname was Dr. Death. The moniker was bestowed upon him in 1958, after he proposed death-row inmates be used for medical experiments. The project would work like this: Death-row subjects could volunteer for painless medical experiments, which would be performed while they were alive, but would ultimately kill them. This would save research money, plus offer insights into the brains of the psychotic. The project was turned down [source: Biography].

He had a fascination with death from an early age. Murad "Jack" Kevorkian was born in Michigan in 1928 to Armenian refugees. A smart kid, he graduated with honors from high school at the age of 17, after teaching himself German and Japanese. Eventually he became a pathologist. As a resident he would photograph terminally ill patients trying to pinpoint what they looked like at the exact moment of their deaths. After bouncing around various medical positions for much of his career, he found himself in his mid-50s, alone, living meagerly off of Social Security and sometimes even sleeping in his car.

But in 1986, Kevorkian learned about Netherlands physicians who were assisting people in hastening their deaths. The method? Lethal injections. Still absorbed with his own idea about death-row prisoner experimentation, Kevorkian seized on this assisted suicide notion and began championing the cause. Soon he created the "Thanatron," a suicide machine whereby a suffering person could administer to himself a saline solution, then a painkiller and finally a fatal dose of potassium chloride. In 1990, Kevorkian helped a woman with Alzheimer's kill herself with the Thanatron; he hooked her up to it, and she administered the painkiller and poison herself [source: Biography].

Over the next decade Kevorkian helped more than 130 people kill themselves. He was prosecuted four times and acquitted three β€”one case ended in a mistrial. But after he allowed the CBS news program "60 Minutes" to air a tape of him administering a lethal injection to an ALS patient, Kevorkian ended up in prison. Convicted of second-degree murder and illegally delivering a controlled substance, Kevorkian served eight years of his 25-year sentence. He was released in 2007 for good behavior β€” and after promising not to help anyone else kill themselves. He died in 2011 at age 83 [sources: Biography, Krupa].

Author's Note: How Medically Assisted Suicide Works

Thankfully, I have never had a loved one suffer greatly for weeks or months or years before dying in agony. So it's a bit difficult to try and imagine the kind of suffering that would drive one to consider ending his life early. On the other hand, I read about some pretty compelling cases while researching this story. And while I haven't signed any "do not resuscitate" materials, my family knows that if I were to fall into an irreversible coma or vegetative state, I wouldn't want to be kept alive by a ventilator or feeding tube.

I can see why this issue is so divisive, and fraught with emotion. And while it would be easy not to think about it, it's a subject our society should address.

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More Great Links


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  • Breslow, Jason. "The Shadow Side of Assisted Suicide." PBS. Nov. 13, 2012. (Feb. 8, 2016)
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  • ProCon. "Top 10 Pros and Cons." (Feb. 19, 2016)
  • Quill, Timothy and Jane Greenlaw. "Physician Assisted Death." The Hastings Center. (Feb. 16, 2016)
  • The Brittany Maynard Fund. (Feb. 16, 2016)
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