Eight years in prison hasn’t changed physician-assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian’s opinion that legislatures can prohibit doctors from helping chronically ill patients end their lives, but no man-made rule can ever take away a person’s “natural right” to decide whether they wish to live or die.
“It is one of our natural rights that we are born with, the right to control the circumstances of one’s own death,” Kevorkian, 79, told TODAY’s Ann Curry on Tuesday during his first live television interview since being released from a Michigan prison last week.
“It can’t be controlled by external forces and be a right,” he told Curry. “The law can block your use of it. That doesn’t mean they destroy the right.”
The media starting calling Kevorkian “Dr. Death” even before several failed attempts by prosecutors in Michigan to send him to prison for murder during the 1990s. Prosecutors finally prevailed in 1999, winning a second-degree murder conviction against Kevorkian for the poisoning death the year before of 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who was suffering from advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease. The assisted suicide aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Kevorkian has estimated that he participated in more than 130 assisted suicides before Michigan finally won a conviction and sentenced the pathologist to 10 to 25 years in prison.
He claims that the practice remains widespread, even if other physicians aren’t stepping forward as he did to advocate physician-assisted suicide so publicly and brazenly.
“What evidence do you have of that, sir?” Curry asked Kevorkian.
“There have been polls taken of doctors, anonymous polls,” said Kevorkian, whose own license to practice medicine was revoked at the time he helped end Youk’s life. “I think more than half say they have done it before and 30 percent say they do it still.”
Although Kevorkian has said he will no longer participate in assisted suicides, he has no regrets about helping to end the life of patients whom he deemed to be suffering and beyond medical help, and who willingly chose to end their lives.
“If a doctor decides, ‘Yes, it’s true. This person has a serious disease. Yes, it’s true. It looks like he’s suffering. And, yes, it’s true. There seems to be nothing that can help him’ — the person has a natural right to request help by a competent professional in ending his life,” Kevorkian said. “And the competent professional has a natural right to accede to that request and help him. Both of those rights [are] blocked by law, that’s all. But that doesn’t destroy the right.”
Apparently, a majority of Americans agree.
A Gallup poll conducted last month found that 71 percent of Americans surveyed feel that doctors should be permitted to end the life of a chronically diseased patient when the patient and his or her family agree to it.
Kevorkian’s attorney, Mayer Morganroth, who appeared on TODAY with him, said his client was always careful to satisfy himself completely that a patient seeking help in ending his or her life was mentally competent to make such a decision. “In any case where there was any doubt about mental capacity, Dr. Kevorkian had them referred to a psychiatrist and got a psychiatrist’s report and analysis of the person’s problems,” Morganroth said.
According to the Web site euthanasia.com, 35 states have enacted statutes criminalizing assisted suicide and nine others bar it as a matter of common law. However, several states’ courts have said assisted suicide is not a crime. Though Oregon is the only state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, California is considering a similar law with procedures physicians would be required to follow.