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The Art of Suffering with Dr. Death

Words:

Edd Norval
April 7, 2021

Jack Kevorkian is the controversial doctor with the nickname that comes straight out of a comic book - Dr. Death. It’s no real shock how he got it either, making his name as a euthanasia proponent before his conviction for murder in 1999. He recieved a lot of public support and utilised art as a means of giving the public an empathetic look at his cases.

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Aiding in upwards of 130 assisted suicides for patients suffering from a variety of debilitating conditions, Kevorkian was a respected pathologist whose opinions on death and assisted suicide were contentious throughout his early career, culminating in his choice to directly offer patients a chance to commit suicide years later.


Aided by two of his devices, either the ‘Thanatron’ (‘death machine’ as per ancient Greek god Thanos) or ‘Mercitron’. Kevorkian built on his body of literature debating the ethics of euthanasia by operating in the field between 1990 and 1998. He stated of his process that, “My aim in helping the patient was not to cause death. My aim was to end suffering. It’s got to be decriminalised.” 


To this end, Kevorkian created a body of artistic works that depicted various states of human suffering. States that, with his help, people would no longer be forced to endure. There were two sides to the Dr - with one being a serious professionalism that underpinned all of his work and the other a darker side with no regard for law. 

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Posthumous research was conducted on his patients and many of them were found not to be terminally ill. Alongside that and perhaps more shockingly, some were found to have no disease at all - but chose to die after suffering from possibly depression or hypochondria. His commitment to the ‘Right To Die’ movement has been polarizing. On ethical grounds, it is difficult to justify euthanasia if an individual is not in the right frame of mind or state of body.


Aiding in the administration of lethal medication - himself actually delivering this time, rather than assisting - of Thomas Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1998, Kevorkian was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. Despite Youk’s informed consent and the support of his family, the procedure was deemed illegal and a sentence of 10-25 years was passed with the Dr. serving eight.


Whether a patient was terminally ill, or actually in pain at all, seemed to jar with Kevorkian’s concept of the agency of each individual. For him, we weren’t consulted to be born, so we should at least have the choice to die. His focus on suffering, whether it physical or psychological, manifests in the controversial artworks shown here. 

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