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FILM REVIEW by Richard Cote


In “You Don’t Know Jack,” Dr. Jack Kevorkian (played by Al Pacino), a made-for-television HBO movie, was broadcast in the U.S. on April 24.

Its story opens when the unemployed Michigan pathologist, age 60, had found his new calling: hastening the death of patients suffering from intolerable pain or loss of autonomy. The media leaped on the story, and soon he had his first patient. On June 4, 1990, with Kevorkian at her side, Janet Adkins, terminally ill with Alzheimer’s disease, pushed the red button on his “Thanatron,” a lethal injection machine he had designed, and died quickly and without pain. Over an eight-year period, Kevorkian assisted the suicide of over 130 suffering people.

Kevorkian’s career ended forever with Thomas Youk’s death on September 17, 1998. Instead of assisting Youk take his own life, as he had with the others, Kevorkian personally injected him with lethal drugs, filmed himself doing so, and handed over the videotape to the CBS news program, 60 Minutes. That led to a murder trial, and on April 13, 1999, he was convicted of second-degree murder. He was freed June 1, 2007. Today he is 82 years old, spry, and as feisty and contentious as ever.
“You Don’t Know Jack” is a commercial feature entertainment film – not a rigorous documentary – about Kevorkian.

It is designed to entertain and inform, and does so fairly well. He is portrayed as an ascetic, intellectually brilliant, artistic, multi-talented, emotionally isolated, death-fixated zealot (his own word) with a small cadre of intensely close and protective friends and a personal mission to end needless end-of-life suffering through physician-assisted suicide.

Kevorkian had no use for any views not of his own creation. In 2009 when I asked him, “will you work to extend laws like those in Washington state and Oregon to other states,” he replied, “That would be like a law extending torture. It’s crazy. [Euthanasia] has nothing to do with law. Those three states—Washington, Oregon and Montana—are doing it wrong.”

The world’s pro-euthanasia leaders have strong views about him today.

Jacqueline Jencquel, Secretary-General of ADMD-France, said that “I personally don’t think that he made our cause advance, because he was perceived as a madman. I hope the movie will show him as he is: a brave man who wanted to change a medieval legislation.”

Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the bestseller “Final Exit” said, “Kevorkian can be credited with informing huge numbers of people about euthanasia, but his hasty methods troubled the medical profession and he did nothing to put in place sound laws for physician-assisted suicide.”

Dr. Hugh T. Wynne, of Scotland, past-president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, wrote that “the TV broadcast of the [Youk] euthanasia went too far, and gave scope for his critics to write off his achievements.”

Lesley Martin, Trustee of the Dignity New Zealand Trust, sees Kevorkian as a euthanasia outlaw. “Has he hindered the right-to-die movement? Yes, by giving the impression to both the casual and discerning observor of this issue, that all proponents of assisted dying support operating illegitimately as he did.”

Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, former Medical Director of The Final Exit Network, thinks Kevorkian was an effective bullhorn. “By his flagrant behavior, he became notorious, people talked about him, and people continue to talk about physician involvement at the end of life.”

Did Kevorkian deliver the right message in the 1990s: that the right to die with dignity should be recognized as an inalienable civil right? Yes. Was he the right messenger to deliver it then? That is debatable. Is he the right messenger to deliver it now? Probably not. He is no longer assisting suicides, and generates little publicity, except for that which will follow this film. Neither is he an influential voice within the international right-to-die movement or a member of any of its organizations. His fame is in the past, and his ability to influence the future of the movement seems also to be over.

The most important positive potential of this film is to introduce the death-with-dignity concept to new, younger audience, and that would be welcomed by the right-to-die community. In the meantime, get your popcorn, find a good seat, and enjoy the story.

— Richard N. Cote’ author of “In Search of Gentle Death: The Fight For Your Right To Die With Dignity” (www.insearchofgentledeath.com)
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