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Impact of Doctor Kevorkian on the Laws on Assisted Suicide

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When most people hear the term “assisted suicide”, they think of Doctor Jack Kevorkian. Doctor Kevorkian was an advocate for and practiced assisted suicide for nearly a decade before being thrown into prison for participating in a mercy killing of one of his patients. Among many other advocates, Doctor Kevorkian was by far the most influential in the eyes of the public. There is nothing in the legislature than can be directly attributed to the actions of Doctor Jack Kevorkian, yet the many changes in the legislature since his debut could have been influenced by his publicity stunts.

There are many different ways a physician or individual can go about ending a life with the intent to end the suffering of a patient. The first and most controversial method is assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is, by the request and consent of a patient, when a doctor or physician administers information about how or a means by which a person can go about voluntarily committing suicide. Many advocates for this prefer the term assisted dying since the term suicide has a connotation to those who decide to end their life without having been diagnosed with a terminally ill disease. The most common way a physician carries out the process of assisted suicide is usually by administering a lethal dosage of a certain drug for the patient to administer to themselves. Euthanasia, on the other hand, is when a physician or doctor takes deliberate and direct action to end a person’s life. A patient in the right state of mind can make a concise decision to request someone to end their life. Other patients who are physically and/or mentally unable to make such a huge decision on their own are required to have the consent or request of another family member or relative. There are many forms of euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is when consent is given from a patient to allow the treatment of euthanasia. Non-voluntary euthanasia is when a patient is unable to give consent which requires authorization from another family member. Involuntary euthanasia is when no permission is granted and is widely considered manslaughter or murder. These forms of euthanasia can be performed passively or actively. Passive euthanasia is when a doctor or physician withholds a life-sustaining treatment, thus allowing the patient not to be killed directly from the actions of the physician but from the patient’s disease. Active euthanasia is when the physician takes part in deliberately causing the death of the patient. This type of euthanasia tends to be the more controversial of the two since this form interferes with the nature of the patient. Euthanasia is illegal in most countries in the world. Many advocates for assisted suicide, in particular, do not want to see the privileges abused and misused. Rather, these practices are meant to have the intent to end suffering in a humane manner.

The dispute of the moral or ethical issue that suicide has and whether society should accept and allow such an act has been occurring since the Renaissance. The first-time suicide had been addressed in writing dates back to 1516. A humanist, Thomas More, wrote in his book Utopia that a person should if afflicted with a disease, have the right to free themselves from such torture. He distinguishes the difference between freeing oneself from a life of torture and life itself. He proposed that killing of oneself or another for any other reason is wrong and should be considered a crime. Suicide and its legalities have since been a delicate topic around the world. Many religions and cultures have very different views on suicide and death itself.

In America, whether or not these things should be legalized and regulated or completely abolished from practice has been a heated debate for about a century now. The topic of assisted suicide in America first arose in 1906 in the state of Ohio. A lady by the name of Anna Hall watched her grandmother suffer for weeks from cancer until her inevitable death. Hall wrote a very spirited letter to the Ohio General Assembly, proposing the legalization of physician-assisted death in some form. Her bill was quickly shot down with a vote of 79 to 23. Yet, her voice made ripples amongst the community in Ohio and began the debate. The next time congress sees a push for legalizing physician-assisted suicide is in 1967 with Dr. Walter W. Sackett in Florida’s legislature. Dr. Sackett introduced what he called the Death with Dignity Act. This act’s basic idea is that the terminally ill patient at hand, not religion, government or any other politician, should be able to make the final decision of when they want to end the suffering and die. The rules of this act stated that mentally stable patients who have been diagnosed to have less than 6 months to live can request to end their life. This act would be able to give these patients control whilst still keeping their dignity intact in the last few days of their life. The statutes also required the diagnosis and opinion of two separate physicians and two separate requests for such treatment by the patient. Unfortunately, even though this bill was reintroduced year after year by Dr. Sackett, the Florida legislature continually rejected the act. This Death with Dignity Act gave many other forms of the legislature that would be introduced into congress in the future their basic structure. In 1976, America sees its first step into a form of assisted suicide. The decision Karen Ann Quinlan’s parents made for her is not considered a form of euthanasia or assisted suicide, yet the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter shows how the government is shifting the power to the decision of the patient and their family members. Karen Quinlan was on life support via a ventilation tube. After months of Karen being in a vegetative state, her parents wanted the tub to be removed. Her parents had no intention of killing their daughter, yet they knew that their decision would be one the Karen would have wanted. The Morris County prosecutor went to court against the hospital and the family on whether or not these actions were considered a homicide. To the surprise of many, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the patient, or the patient’s family, has the right to withdraw life-sustaining treatment with a vote of 7 to 0. After the tube was removed, Karen lived for eight more years. This Supreme Court decision opened the doors to the legalization of assisted suicide and the decision the patient or patient’s family should be able to make about their own lives. These events, along with the input of the Catholic church, advocate organizations, and many pieces of literature, would begin to shape the ideas of what America has for assisted suicide and what power should be given to the patient.

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One of the most influential public figures and advocates for assisted suicide and euthanasia was Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Jack Kevorkian was born on May 26, 1928, in Pontiac, Michigan. He was raised along with his two other siblings by his parents who immigrated from Armenia. Kevorkian began studying civil engineering at the University of Michigan but changed his major to biology and wanted to attend medical school. He graduated in 1952 and began his residency at the University of Michigan Hospital. Here is where Kevorkian began to become fascinated with death. He spent much of his time studying terminally ill patients. With the legalization of the death penalty in 1976, Kevorkian pushed for experimentation on those on death row. He argued that these criminals could give their bodies to science and die a painless death in the process, giving scientists a deeper knowledge of death and the mind of a criminal. Along with earning him the nickname “Dr. Death”, these experimentations got Kevorkian expelled from the University of Michigan. He continued working as a pathologist in various Michigan hospitals until 1982 when he decided to dedicate his life to ending lives. It was in 1990 when Kevorkian carried out his first public assisted suicide. Doctor Kevorkian aided in the suicide of Janet Adkins, an advocate for voluntary euthanasia. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and looked for someone like Dr. Death to help in her suicide before the disease completely took her over. Kevorkian and Adkins drove to a public park in a Volkswagen van where Kevorkian attached her to his suicide machine. The suicide machine he used was named the “Thanatron” which translates to “The Death Machine” in Greek. This machine was made by Kevorkian for $45. It had three bottles containing a saline solution, painkillers, then the lethal dose of potassium chloride. Adkins administered the drugs herself and was dead within 5 minutes. With this, Kevorkian became internationally known. He was charged with murder by the state of Michigan. Yet, the charges were dropped since there were no actual laws in Michigan against the action of assisting suicide or euthanasia. The next year Michigan issued an injunction that would stop Kevorkian from doing such a thing again and his medical license was later suspended. Since he was unable to attain the chemicals for the “Thanatron”, Kevorkian created the “Mercitron”, which roughly translates to “The Mercy Machine”, which administers a lethal dose of carbon monoxide. Kevorkian, still passionate about advocating assisted suicide, continued to help others commit suicide. In 1993, Kevorkian went to jail twice. Both times he was convicted of violating the new Michigan laws on assisted suicide and both times he was released from jail early because he threatened to starve himself on account of such a terrible law. Between 1990 and 1998, Doctor Kevorkian helped over 120 people commit suicide. All of these cases were strictly assisted suicide. All patients took the final action in ending their own lives and administering the drugs themselves. Some reports say that a majority of patients Kevorkian helped were not actually terminally ill. Kevorkian has said that his main motive was to end suffering, yet some of his patients were either not experiencing pain, suffered from depression, or never received an official diagnosis of a disease. Whether or not his patients actually suffered from a terminally ill disease or not, Kevorkian’s societal impact was never compromised. Between 1994 and 1997, Kevorkian went to trial four times for being convicted of assisted suicide where three trial were acquitted and the last trial was a mistrial. These court cases gained Kevorkian much attention in the public eye.

It was in September 1998 that Jack Kevorkian made a video that would send him to prison on a charge of second-degree murder for eight years. Kevorkian videotaped himself injecting a patient of his, Thomas Youk, with a lethal injection. Youk was 52 years old and suffered many years with Lou Gehrig’s disease and gave his complete consent on camera the day he died. The videotape was aired on CBS News’ 60 Minutes in November 1998. In the video, Kevorkian threatens the courts to send him to prison for what he did. What Kevorkian did was much different than what he had been doing for years now. Kevorkian was practicing voluntary euthanasia which means he took an actual part in giving the lethal dosage of medicine. He actually injected the substance instead of the patients injecting it themselves. Kevorkian was tried in a trail in 1999 for second-degree murder and administering medicine without a medical license. He was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison. This trial was the most influential thing Kevorkian took part of in the public eye. This made international news and sparked much debate on the subject. Kevorkian only served eight years and swore to not assist in any more suicides. Nine years after his release from prison, Kevorkian passed away from liver cancer.

After the legacy of Jack Kevorkian, many changes in the legislature have been made. In 1994, Oregon became the first state in America to legalize assisted suicide. Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act which is very similar to the act Dr. Sackett tried to pass in Florida in 1967. Other states that have legalized physician-assisted suicide include Washington in 2008, Montana in 2009, Vermont in 2013, California in 2015, Colorado and DC in 2016, Hawaii in 2018 and Maine and New Jersey this year. All states except Montana require two separate requests from the patient and a diagnosis of 6 months or less to live. Ultimately, an underlying theme many advocates for assisted suicide have is the need for better health care in America. The entire basis or need of assisted suicide implies a situation where a patient cannot be helped anymore or of ineffective treatment. If the motive for assisted suicide is to end suffering, then better treatment in the hospital in America should be the first-order of priority. Politicians today are open to the idea of physician-assisted suicide. A few notable advocates that have been quoted to be in favor of assisted suicide are Hillary Clinton and Berny Sanders. There are many changes that are being made today with regard to assisted suicide.

When it came to the motives of Doctor Kevorkian, it was less about directing changing legislature but merely about changing the perception of society to change legislature. Kevorkian was never one to compile his thoughts into bills and change legislation in Congress. Rather, as evidenced of his trials and constant practice of this controversial subject, he was motivated to start the debate in society. He believed changing the views on the subject in the eyes of the people would then invoke change in the legislature. He wanted and advocated for physician-assisted suicide and wanted change. If he was alive today and was able to see the amount of change being made, he would be proud.

Works Cited

  1. “Assisted Suicide 1906.” FOUNDATION FOR LIFE, 1906.
  2. Bernstein, Ellen. “Jack Kevorkian.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 May 2019,
  3. Brazier, Yvette. “Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: What Are They and What Do They Mean?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 17 Dec. 2018,
  4. Cheyfitz, Kirk. ‘Who decides? The connecting thread of euthanasia, eugenics, and doctor-assisted suicide.’ OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying 40.1 (2000): 5-16.
  5. “Dengrove.” Karen Ann Quinlan and the Right to Die | Dengrove,
  6. Meisel, Alan. ‘Physician-assisted suicide: a common law roadmap for state courts.’ Fordham Urb. LJ 24 (1996): 817. olar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C19&q=doctor+kevorkian+court+case&btnG=&httpsredir=1&a rticle=2175&context=ulj
  7. Pereira, J. “Legalizing Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide: The Illusion of Safeguards and Controls.” Current Oncology (Toronto, Ont.), Multimed Inc., Apr. 2011,
  8. Schneider, Keith. “Dr. Jack Kevorkian Dies at 83; A Doctor Who Helped End Lives.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 June 2011,
  9. ‘States Where Physician-Assisted Suicide is Allowed.’ UWIRE Text, 18 Apr. 2016, p. 1. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.
  10. “States with Legal Physician-Assisted Suicide.” Should Euthanasia or Physician-Assisted Suicide Be Legal?,

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Impact of Doctor Kevorkian on the Laws on Assisted Suicide. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Impact of Doctor Kevorkian on the Laws on Assisted Suicide.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
Impact of Doctor Kevorkian on the Laws on Assisted Suicide. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
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