Monday, August 08, 2011

A Guest Post by Anna: A Feminist Criticism of Jack Kevorkian

A Feminist Criticism of Jack Kevorkian by Anna

Why do Kevorkian’s actions have feminist implications? They do because women’s lives, particularly the lives of women with disabilities, are often not valued. 71 percent of Kevorkian’s patients were women.

Rebecca Badger, a patient of Kevorkian's and a mentally troubled drug abuser, had been wrongly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was killed anyway. Janet Adkins, Kevorkian's first patient, was chosen without Kevorkian ever speaking to her, only with her husband, and when Kevorkian first met Adkins two days before her assisted suicide he "made no real effort to discover whether Ms. Adkins wished to end her
life," as the Michigan Court of Appeals put it in a 1995 ruling upholding an order against Kevorkian's activity.

Kevorkian did speak with Dr. Murray Raskind, a psychiatrist who had been treating Adkins at University of Washington Hospital in Seattle, and a nationally recognized expert on aging and Alzheimer's. Raskind told Kevorkian that Adkins was not competent to make a life-and-death decision. Kevorkian gave her a lethal injection anyway, writing later that his opinion was based solely on conversations with Adkins' husband.

Conversations about assisted suicide often revolve around the assumption that it’s all about saving people from spending their last days in intolerable pain, something no reasonable person could really object to. But in a society without much of a social safety net or an adequate health care system, where women often live longer and earn less than men, and are more likely to be disabled, and where women’s
lives are seen as based around providing care and love to others, the idea that it is selfish for a disabled, old, sick woman – or even one merely perceived as having these traits – to go on living has a disturbing amount of force.

Kevorkian was well known as an advocate of the option of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Yet that does not tell the whole story. According to a report by the Detroit Free Press, 60% of the patients who committed suicide with Kevorkian's help were not terminally ill - at least 17 of them could have lived indefinitely - and in 13 cases, the patients had no complaints of pain. The report further asserted
that Kevorkian's counseling was too brief (with at least 19 patients dying less than 24 hours after first meeting Kevorkian) and lacked a psychiatric exam in at least 19 cases, 5 of which involved people with histories of depression, though Kevorkian was sometimes alerted that the patient was unhappy for reasons other than their medical condition. (In 1992, Kevorkian himself wrote that it is always necessary to
consult a psychiatrist when performing assisted suicides because a person's "mental state is . . . of paramount importance." )

The report also stated that Kevorkian failed to refer at least 17 patients to a
pain specialist after they complained of chronic pain, and sometimes failed to obtain a complete medical record for his patients, with at least three autopsies of suicides Kevorkian had assisted with showing the person who committed suicide to have no physical sign of disease.

According to The Economist: "Studies of those who sought out Dr. Kevorkian, however, suggest that though many had a worsening illness ... it was not usually terminal. Autopsies showed five people had no disease at all. ... Little over a third were in pain. Some presumably suffered from no more than hypochondria or depression."

In response, Kevorkian's attorney Geoffrey Fieger published an essay stating, "I've
never met any doctor who lived by such exacting guidelines as Kevorkian ... he published them in an article for the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry in 1992. Last year he got a committee of doctors, the Physicians of Mercy, to lay down new guidelines, which he scrupulously follows.” But Fieger admitted that Kevorkian found it difficult to follow his "exacting guidelines" due to "persecution and
prosecution", adding "[H]e's proposed these guidelines saying this is what ought to be done. These are not to be done in times of war, and we're at war.” Furthermore, in a 2010 interview with Sanjay Gupta, Kevorkian stated "What difference does it make if someone is terminal? We are all terminal."

Rather than submit to Kevorkian’s “solution”, we need to change society so that everyone, particularly those with disabilities, will have the care they need to survive, and the knowledge that their lives are valuable.

You can help right now by speaking out against assisted suicide for the disabled, and by protesting cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, and Social Services. Remember, the budget must not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable. Thank you.


1. Detroit Free Press investigation report:

2. “Kevorkian's patients were mostly women”, by the Deseret News:

3. Kevorkian’s Obituary, The Economist: