June 4, 2011

NYT: Kevorkian Was ‘Fiercely Principled’

At the New York Times yesterday (appearing on the front page in today’s print edition), Keith Schneider’s Jack Kevorkian obituary described the late assisted suicide practitioner as “fiercely principled.”

An advanced search on that term (in quotes) indicates that the Old Gray Lady has only used it to describe a real human being one other time since 1981, in reference to composer Peter Maxwell Davies in January 2009. The same Times search done on 1851-1980 comes up empty. Think of all the eminently nobler and saintly people who have passed through this life during the past 160 years. Not one of them was ever described by the Times as “fiercely principled” during their lives or after their deaths. Amazing.

Additionally, the Times has had some difficulty adequately describing the nature of Kevorkian’s “accomplishments.” In the obit’s window title and currently at the paper’s home page, Kevorkian is headlined only as someone who “backed assisted suicide.” The story’s actual headline at the web obit and in today’s print edition is still somewhat non-descriptive: “Dr. Jack Kevorkian Dies at 83; A Doctor Who Helped End Lives.”

Schneider outrageously gives Kevorkian partial credit for spurring the growth of hospice care and heightening doctors’ sensitivities to patients’ pain. I’m not kidding. Additionally, the obituary’s content will leave many readers with the mistaken impression that all of Doctor Death’s victims were terminally ill. They weren’t.

Here are several of the most offensive paragraphs from Schneider’s odious obit (bolds and numbered tags are mine):

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.

In arguing for the right of the terminally ill to choose how they die, [1] Dr. Kevorkian challenged social taboos about disease and dying while defying prosecutors and the courts. He spent eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of the last of about 130 ailing patients [1] whose lives he had helped end, beginning in 1990.

Originally sentenced in 1999 to 10 to 25 years in a maximum security prison, he was released after assuring the authorities that he would never conduct another assisted suicide.

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. [2]

… In Oregon, where a schoolteacher had become Dr. Kevorkian’s first assisted suicide patient, state lawmakers in 1997 approved a statute making it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medications to help terminally ill patients end their lives. In 2006 the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found that Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act protected assisted suicide as a legitimate medical practice.

During the period that Oregon was considering its law, Dr. Kevorkian’s confrontational strategy gained wide publicity, which he actively sought. National magazines put his picture on their covers, and he drew the attention of television programs like “60 Minutes.” His nickname, Dr. Death, and his self-made suicide machine, which he variously called the “Mercitron” or the “Thanatron,” became fodder for late-night television comedians.

In 2010 his story was dramatized in the HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack,” starring Al Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian. Mr. Pacino received Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his performance. In his Emmy acceptance speech, he said he had been gratified to “try to portray someone as brilliant and interesting and unique” as Dr. Kevorkian. Dr. Kevorkian, who was in the audience, smiled in appreciation.

… Jack Lessenberry, a prominent Michigan journalist who covered Dr. Kevorkian’s one-man campaign, wrote in The Detroit Metro Times: “Jack Kevorkian, faults and all, was a major force for good in this society. He forced us to pay attention to one of the biggest elephants in society’s living room: the fact that today vast numbers of people are alive who would rather be dead, who have lives not worth living.” [4]

Fiercely principled and equally inflexible, he rarely dated and never married. [3] He lived a penurious life, eating little, avoiding luxury and dressing in threadbare clothing that he often bought at the Salvation Army.


  • [1] — It is a historical fact that at least a couple of those who committed suicide with Kevorkian’s assistance were not terminally ill. Additionally, Schneider identifies Doctor Death’s first victim as “Janet Adkins, an Oregon teacher who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.” Ronald Reagan lived almost 10 years after his Alzheimer’s was identified. Schneider “cleverly” dodges this inconvenient truth about the health of Kevorkian’s patient by describing his advocacy as relating to “the terminally ill” while characterizing his handiwork as involving “ailing patients” who, as noted, were not always terminally ill. Many if not most readers won’t catch Schneider’s weaselly, disgraceful distinction.
  • [2] — If “all generally agreed” that Kevorkian “helped spur the growth of hospice care” and ” made many doctors more sympathetic to those in severe pain,” why didn’t the Times writer quote anyone to that effect? It would appear that “all generally agreed” might in this case really mean “I believe.”
  • [3] — Ah yes, the euthanasia theme song, “life not worth living.”
  • [4] — As noted in earlier paragraphs, the Times has applied the term “fiercely principled to a real human being only one other time in 160-plus years.

In the annals of historical revisionism, Kevorkian’s Times obit is a definite Hall of Shame contender.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.


UPDATE, June 5: Commenter Billy Rubin has a great post on Kevorkian. Read the whole thing, but here a few excerpts —

In reality, Kevorkian was … a creepy zealot obsessed with death who knew nothing about actual patient care.

… He was praised for his compassion despite the fact that he had not only not taken care of living patients except during his internship, but had never received any training of any kind in treating patients with depression (common enough among the terminally ill), palliative care, or any of the diseases that he claimed to treat.

… In short, Dr. Kevorkian-the-Caring was a total media fabrication. He was a murderer, and if anything was treated gently by the justice system.

… As for judging whether a life is worth living, that’s much more straightforward. Physician’s have no business judging the worth of any of their patient’s lives. That is playing God.

Jack Kevorkian can only hope that God exercises more compassion with him than Kevorkian did with those who killed themselves with his help.


1 Comment

  1. Bizz–

    Nice entry. I linked yours in my blog post: http://www.billyrubinsblog.org/2011/06/jack-kevorkian-goodbye-good-riddance.html. If you haven’t had a chance, you should check out the comments on the NYT obit; there was overwhelming praise for Kevorkian, which was a bit of a shock.

    Best, Billy

    (PS–be forewarned, we’re rather at opposite ends of the political spectrum.)

    Comment by Billy Rubin — June 5, 2011 @ 10:18 am

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