The rhetoric put forward to rationalize the killing of an innocent person, especially one with whom the killer has a close or even intimate relationship, has always required considerable ingenuity. This is not so much the case at the present moment. In recent years, an individual has come into prominence who is the very personification of death-on-request.

Shunning the need for laboured rhetoric or tortured rationalization, Jack Kevorkian, aka “Dr. Death,” plies his trade as if there were no need to justify what he does. “My specialty is death,” he says, without apology or any trace of self-consciousness. As a Time magazine article says of him, “With his deadly skill, he has become a walking advertisement for designer death.”

When Kevorkian (born 1928) was a pathology resident in the 1950s, he proposed experimental surgery on a voluntary basis for death-row prisoners. The more problematic aspect of his proposal was his intention not to revive the prisoners once the experiments on them had been completed. In response to Kevorkian’s persistence in urging this proposal, the University of Michigan’s pathology department dismissed him from his residency.

During the ensuing two decades, Kevorkian lobbied politicians to introduce legislation that would allow the organs of executed prisoners to be donated to others. Few people took him seriously. In the 1980s, while much attention was being directed toward the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide, Kevorkian devised a suicide machine, or “mercitron,” as he called it. He intended its use for those individuals who wanted to be permanently released from their suffering. At that time, he also advocated “obitoria” – professional venues where such “deliverances” would take place. He assembled his “killing machine” from scrap aluminum, a toy car that the now-unemployed Kevorkian had torn apart for its pieces, and other odds and ends he found at garage sales and flea markets. He tried to have an advertisement for his death machine published in the Oakland County, Mich. Medical Society Bulletin. When its seven-member board turned it down, news services and then talk shows picked up on the story. Kevorkian found, through the media, the publicity he was seeking.

His first client was 54-year-old Janet Adkins of Portland, Ore. Adkins had been diagnosed as having early stage Alzheimer’s disease. She and her husband, both members of the Hemlock Society, had watched Kevorkian present his case on the Phil Donahue Show. It was the husband, however, who found himself unable to sleep at night. And it was he who contacted Kevorkian and made all the arrangements for his wife’s death. Janet Adkins did not meet Kevorkian until the weekend before her demise.

Adkins, who “did not want to be a burden to her husband and her family,” was a vigorous woman who showed little adverse signs of her incipient illness. A week before she died, this vital woman defeated her 32-year-old son in a game of tennis. On the day prior to her suicide, she wrote a statement explaining her decision. Her well-written final testament indicated no signs of mental deterioration. Her doctor testified in court that he believed she would be mentally competent for another three years.

On June 4, 1990, Jack Kevorkian parked his rusty Volkswagen van at a campsite just outside of Detroit. There, in the van, he hooked Adkins up to his “mercitron.” He had trouble inserting the needle into a vein in her arm, but finally succeeded after several botched attempts that left his hands and clothes spattered with blood. He also spilled the sedative as he was pouring it into one of the machine’s bottles. Having left Adkins in the van, he drove 45 miles to his home to get a new supply.

According to Kevorkian, Janet Adkins pushed a button on his machine that released the toxic concentration of potassium chloride that ended her life. After he allegedly assisted in her suicide, he then notified the medical examiner and the sheriff of what transpired. He did express one regret; namely, that he did not rush the deceased to the hospital. “You could have sliced her liver in half,” he said, “and saved two babies, and her bone marrow could have been taken, her heart, two kidneys, two lungs and pancreas.”

The Rev. Alan B. Deale, who presided over the memorial service for Janet Adkins, referred to the concept of planned death as “an idea whose time had come.” He said that he did not feel that it was his job to try to talk her out of committing suicide.

In December of the same year, Kevorkian was charged with murder. Eleven days later, Judge Gerald McNally of the Oakland Country District Court (Michigan) dismissed the charges. He believed that what Kevorkian did was the inauguration of a practice that could not be stopped. “I’m confident that this thing Kevorkian is spearheading or leading is not a false trend,” he told a Michigan reporter. “Those trends are irreversible and you have to go along with it.”

The public’s initial reaction to Kevorkian’s deed was negative. But support for Kevorkian began to appear in various strategic and influential places. Marcia Angell, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “Don’t Criticize Doctor Death.” She invited people to examine the problem of assisted suicide “forthrightly and compassionately.” Derek Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society, perhaps America’s best known advocacy group for euthanasia, applauded Kevorkian’s actions, while referring to him as a “brave and lonely pioneer.”

Although charges that Kevorkian had murdered Janet Adkins were dropped, a temporary injunction was issued to prevent him from using his suicide machine again. In issuing the injunction, Circuit Court Judge Alice Gilbert stated that it was a necessary procedure in the interest of protecting public health and welfare. Outraged by the injunction, Kevorkian argued that it was he who was serving the public good. “The voluntary self-elimination of individual and mortally diseased or crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare,” he wrote.

Within a year, Kevorkian acted in violation of the injunction. On Oct. 23, 1991, he assisted in the deaths of 43-year-old Sherry Miller and 58-year-old Marjorie Wantz. Neither was terminally ill. The three met in a motel room where Kevorkian videotaped the two women expressing their desire to die. After their deaths, the Hemlock Society issued a press release stating that, “Dr. Kevorkian’s motive was purely humanitarian … Dr. Kevorkian has done the nation a service.” Nonetheless, a grand jury indicted Kevorkian on Feb. 5, 1992 on two counts of murder in the deaths of Miller and Wantz. While awaiting trial, Kevorkian assisted in the death of another woman, 52-year-old Susan Williams, who had multiple sclerosis. The charges were eventually dismissed.

From 1990 through 1998, Kevorkian, by his own admission, assisted in the deaths of some 130 human beings, the vast majority of whom were not terminally ill. He was acquitted of homicide in three trials. A fourth was declared a mistrial on a technicality.

The problem in securing a conviction lay in the fact that Kevorkian rested his defence on the humanitarian grounds that he did not intend the deaths of his clients, but only to end their suffering. Jurors, sympathetic to the plight of the suffering, were inclined to interpret Kevorkian’s actions not as homicidal, but as compassionate. For example, Gwen Bryson, a juror in the Thomas Hyde case, stated: “We believe the intent was not to help Hyde commit suicide. We believe it was to relieve pain and suffering.” Kevorkian had been charged with breaking Michigan’s assisted suicide law in helping Thomas Hyde, aged 30 and suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, to die.

Acquittals on the basis that ending a person’s suffering is a more central legal issue than ending his life, raise an important question. Would the courts also apply this priority given to ending suffering in cases where a person directly killed, rather than merely assisted in the death of, a suffering client? Kevorkian wanted to test the law. On Nov. 22, 1998, before tens of millions of televiewers who had tuned in to CBS’s 60 Minutes, Jack Kevorkian injected 52-year-old Thomas Youk with potassium chloride, thereby ending his life.

Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca issued a warrant charging Kevorkian with premeditated murder. “Notwithstanding Youk’s consent, consent is not a viable defence in taking the life of another, even under the most controlled environment.” State Senator Bill Regenmorter was pleased with Gorcyca’s decision. “This is a defining moment for Michigan,” he said. “We are either going to pursue a culture of death or a culture of life. My hat is off to prosecutor Gorcyca.” Kevorkian was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.