A Trenchant Moment with Kevorkian

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, released from prison last week, says that he intends to work on changing the laws on assisted suicide. In a reporter's notebook, Don Gonyea reflects on a 1990 interview with Kevorkian. The practitioner of assisted suicide had just helped Janet Adkins die.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The man they call Doctor Death is a freeman today. On Friday, Jack Kevorkian stepped out the Michigan prison where he'd spent eight years for second-degree murder. Kevorkian says he assisted in some 130 suicides, and promises not to do it again. But Kevorkian says he will resume his campaign for legal reform to allow the terminally ill to end their lives.

NPR's Don Gonyea worked out of Detroit during the '90s when Kevorkian began to advocate for assisted suicide, and began to practice what he was preaching.

DON GONYEA: This is about the day it all started - June 4, 1990. That's when 54-year-old Janet Adkins became the first person to end her life by pushing the button on Kevorkian's homemade suicide machine. Adkins had early Alzheimer's. She was beginning to be forgetful. She had no interest in living any longer. Kevorkian made this home videotape of Adkins.

(Soundbite of home videotape)

Dr. JACK KEVORKIAN (Assisted Suicide Advocate): Now, Janet, do you know - you have seen - you know what I - you're asking me to do? Do you realize that?

Ms. JANET ADKINS (Alzheimer's patient; First suicide assisted by Jack Kevorkian): Yes.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: Okay. Do you want help from me?

Ms. ADKINS: I do.

Dr. KEVORKIAN: Do you realize that I can make arrangements for everything and you have to do it? That you have to push the button.

Ms. ADKINS: I understand.

GONYEA: The suicide took place on a cot in the back of Kevorkian's Volkswagen van. Early the next morning, I found the doctor in his tiny Royal Oak, Michigan apartment. He was anxious to talk. He shared the details of Adkins' death, how he told her have a good trip, moments before she passed. At one point I said, I've done a very impromptu survey - how I'd asked everyone I'd seen since I heard the news what they thought; how some said they were appalled; how some supported him. But I noted that even some of those who were sympathetic still said that they saw him as kind of a Doctor Frankenstein character.

I expected him to respond by saying: Well, we're dealing with death. People are uncomfortable and they'll say things like that. Instead, Kevorkian leaned in very close - about six inches from my face - have you read "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," he asked? I nodded that I had. He said then you know that Frankenstein wasn't the monster; society was the monster. I tried to maintain eye contact while slowly stealing a glimpse at my tape recorder to make sure I'd actually capture the line. I thought, technically correct, doctor, but how's this going to sound on the radio tonight? I also confessed a feeling a bit of a chill up my spine.

Now, over the years I gathered a lot of outrageous quotes from Doctor Kevorkian but somehow that line, that first day, really does capture the guy for me. And I think about it again as he gets out, promising no more assisted suicides even if the letters for help keep pouring in as they did while he was in prison.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: NPR's Don Gonyea spent a decade covering Jack Kevorkian in Michigan.

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