The 'Fiercely Principled' Jack Kevorkian Helped 'Spur the Growth of Hospice Care'

A Times obituary for Jack Kevorkian, who practiced ad-hoc euthanasia, gave him credit for principle while eliding much of his creepiness, recounted by a fellow Times reporter: "Kevorkian was obsessed with human experimentation, and pined for a day when both assisted suicides and executions could be accompanied by vivisection."
"Doctor Who Helped End Lives," Saturday's front-page obituary for Jack Kevorkian, aka "Dr. Death," by Times special correspondent Keith Schneider, called the death-obsessed Kevorkian "fiercely principled" and credited him for helping to "spur the growth of hospice care" through his advocacy for assisted suicide.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the medical pathologist who willfully helped dozens of terminally ill people end their lives, becoming the central figure in a national drama surrounding assisted suicide, died on Friday in Royal Oak., Mich. He was 83.

Schneider found a positive bottom line in Kevorkian's ghoulish work:

His critics were as impassioned as his supporters, but all generally agreed that his stubborn and often intemperate advocacy of assisted suicide helped spur the growth of hospice care in the United States and made many doctors more sympathetic to those in severe pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.

After both positive and negative quotes about Kevorkian's legacy, Schneider hailed Kevorkian as "fiercely principled."

Fiercely principled and equally inflexible, he rarely dated and never married. He lived a penurious life, eating little, avoiding luxury and dressing in threadbare clothing that he often bought at the Salvation Army. In 1976, bored with medicine, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., where he spent 12 years painting and writing, producing an unsuccessful film about Handel's "Messiah," and supporting himself with part-time pathology positions at two hospitals.


But on March 26, 1999, after a trial that lasted less than two days, a Michigan jury found Dr. Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder. That trial came six months after Dr. Kevorkian had videotaped himself injecting Thomas Youk, a patient suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), with the lethal drugs that caused Mr. Youk's death on Sept. 17, 1998.

Dr. Kevorkian sent the videotape to "60 Minutes," which broadcast it on Nov. 22. The tape showed Dr. Kevorkian going well beyond assisting a patient in causing his own death by performing the injection himself. The program portrayed him as a zealot with an agenda.

John Schwartz's Sunday "News Analysis," "A Polarizing Figure in End-of-Life Debates" functioned as a slight rebuttal of Schneider's obituary by including facts the Times official obit missed.

In reports of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's death on Friday at the age of 83, the general rule of obituaries held: Do not speak ill of the dead.

Dr. Kevorkian was generally described as a difficult man who helped advance the cause of assisted suicide for those with terminal illness.

Within the movement known generally as death with dignity, however, the evaluation of his contribution might seem surprisingly qualified, and the praise decidedly muted.

"He raised the profile of the issue, but he put the wrong face on it," said Eli D. Stutsman, a lawyer in Portland, Ore., who helped draft his state's trailblazing Death With Dignity Act, which allows terminal patients to end their own lives with the help of a doctor.

Schwartz wrote that Kevorkian "seemed to make up his methods as he went along. He did not appear to screen patients to determine whether they were actually close to death, and he seemed to make no efforts to get counseling for those who might have wanted to live longer."

Schwartz included darker details:

This record was ignored or glossed over by his admirers. (So were the roots of his interest in euthanasia: Kevorkian was obsessed with human experimentation, and pined for a day when both assisted suicides and executions could be accompanied by vivisection.) After his release from prison in 2007, he was treated like a civil rights revolutionary rather a killer - with fawning interviews on "60 Minutes," $50,000 speaking engagements, and a hagiographic HBO biopic starring Al Pacino.

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