Kevorkian and the Right to Choose

As I approached my office parking lot, I saw the news vans and trucks in the parking lot and driveway, with more streaming in. I imagined the worst: Another clinic was targeted, someone was killed, I only knew that whatever it was it was bad, and I’d have to have a statement ready.

As executive director of the Michigan Abortion Rights Action League, I was the go-to spokesperson for anything relating to abortion. I walked into the office with a sense of dread. But the hallway was quiet. There were no cameras in sight and no reporters waiting.

I quickly learned that Geoffrey Fieger, who built the splashy new office building next door, was Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s lawyer, and the crews were there because the Michigan legislature had just passed a ban on assisted suicide. The ban was directed at one person and that person was Kevorkian, the so-called “Doctor Death,” and the media wanted a reaction.

Watching You Don’t Know Jack, an extraordinary new HBO film about Kevorkian brought these memories flooding back. Al Pacino, playing the physician, captures the complexity of an odd man on an unusual mission. Kevorkian loves music, plays the flute, paints and writes poetry. Yet, he is obsessed with euthanasia, is detached from real life and can’t understand how anyone would consider outlawing his methods and his suicide machine, which he considered to be humane. Kevorkian is portrayed as being brilliant, yet incapable of understanding the need to appeal to the public through the media. His savant qualities reminded me of Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt, in Rain Man, also directed by Barry Levinson. That film won four Academy Awards and this one is bound to walk away with multiple Emmys next award season.

Kevorkian’s support system in the film consists of attorney Fieger (Danny Huston), his sister Margot Janus (Brenda Vaccaro), Neal Nicol (John Goodman) and his trusted ally in the movement, my friend Janet Good (Susan Sarandon). Watching her mother suffer in a nursing home led Janet to found the Hemlock Society in Michigan. She met Kevorkian and soon began working with him. As a feminist, a member of NOW and of Catholics for Choice, she recognized the connection between the right to die and the right to choose.

The opposition to assisted suicide in Michigan was led by the same people (Right to Life of Michigan) who oppose abortion. They rounded up their bully boys and shock troops to create a noisy media circus and enlisted their allies in the legislature and the prosecutor’s office to put Kevorkian away. All the while they proclaimed to be doing “God’s work.” The angry mob said that their zealotry was grounded in the belief that God has a plan for you which does not allow human intervention–whether it’s a plan for how much suffering you must endure or how many children you must bear. The “right-to-lifers” tried to enlist people with disabilities in their cause when they cautioned that allowing people to choose to die would soon become their “duty to die.” They used the same rhetoric during the recent health-care reform debate when they conjured up fears about Obama’s “death panels.” This fear-mongering is adapted to the abortion issue when claims are made that women blithely abort “imperfect” fetuses.

This confluence of issues isn’t addressed in the film but if you’ve been paying attention to the anti-choice movement, you’ll recognize the rhetoric and religious fervor.

You Don’t Know Jack presents a complex, deeply personal issue. As Geoffrey Fieger says in the film, “How is it possible that a mentally competent adult does not have the right to look a doctor in the eye and say ‘I’ve had enough? I can’t endure any more pain. Help me, I’ve had enough.’” On August 26, 1997–Women’s Equality Day–Janet Good, who’d been suffering from pancreatic cancer, decided that she’d had enough. She committed suicide in her home and, while it was never confirmed, her dear friend and associate Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s white van was reported to have been seen in front.

Kevorkian continued to assist people, but I won’t tell you the rest of the plot; you’ll just have to watch the film. Do you see connections between the issues of choice and the right to die? I’m interested in your comments.

You Don’t Know Jack debuted on HBO April 24 and is available to HBO subscribers “on demand” until June 21. On Monday, June 28, HBO will also air Kevorkian,  a new “lion-in-winter” documentary of the physician, now  82.


Trailer for You Don’t Know Jack

Correction 5/9: “the disabled” changed to “people with disabilities”


  1. Pam Greenland says:

    Carol–I am so very proud of you for all you have accomplished with your life. Who knew back on the 6th floor of Eicher that this was your destiny?

  2. Robert M. says:

    Carol points to a common thread in the pretzel logic of many zealots on the far right.While they rail against any effort of the government to provide collective solutions to social problems, they seem to have an unquenchable desire to decide for all of us when we should procreate and how long we should live, regardless of the informed choices we could make, with the benefit of carefully crafted legislation. It is far too much to hope that this movie will further the debate. This issue, like abortion, is a controversy that simply, and sadly, does not get debated.

  3. Carolyn MacAdam says:

    There is such an obvious connection between our anti-choice opponents and those who stopped Jack Kevorkian. They want to control our entire lives for their religious beliefs, even those of us who are non-religious! And, they need to be stopped. “The

  4. I wish they would have mentioned Janet Goode’s feminist identity as well in the movie. I had no idea she was involved in the pro-choice movement.

  5. Jacquie Steingold says:


    I saw the film and was taken by the people I recognized, the places and the issues. I don’t know what Susan Sarandon had to work with but I didn’t “feel” Janet in her characterization. It was brave of HBO and Al Pacino did a remarkable job. Hopefully the debate and discussion will continue. Thank you for continuing to write, provoke, and remember …

  6. M.Cheff says:

    So many memories brought to mind. Carol, you hit the nail right on the head! Met Janet many times and remember her more as a feminist. Jack was right but he had a very unusual personality.

  7. Monica Smiley says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, Carol, but will do so. I remember Janet Good, but didn’t know that she was involved with Dr. Kevorkian. I certainly remember the Right to Life tactics in Michigan, however…how could any of us ever forget them. Keep up the great job with this blog, Carol.

  8. Liz Homer says:

    Thanks for tipping us off about this HBO movie. And for connecting the dots.

  9. Helen Szablya says:

    Excellent film and I agree with your comments about the right to die and the right to choose.

  10. I’m pro-choice but I’m also a disability rights advocate and I find it really unfortunate that you’re casting “the disabled” as pawns of the religious right. The issue is more complex than you describe. See the blog

  11. I’m glad you made this connection. Very interesting and it piqued my curiosity about Dr. Kervorkian. There is definitely a connection here. Not to change the subject but it is interesting to me to notice that some of the pro-gun rights activists that speak out against the interference of the government in their lives and right to bear arms, are sometimes the same people who don’t see the connection to the government intervening in the most private matter as to what we choose to do with our bodies. It’s remarkable that we still have to fight to control what we do with our own lives and bodies.

  12. Maureen M says:

    Thanks for this, Carol. What inherent dignity is allowed in being human when fear is the basis for beliefs and actions? Dr. Kevorkian seems to operate from a place beyond fear. It is with such sadness that I watch our sisters/brothers succumb to ravening fear and the need to control that which is beautiful in its own right. Those cultures that have treated death as one thread in the entire cloth of “existence” understood the dignity of choice in death. I suppose as long as religious zealots believe that an old man on a throne is severely judging everyone’s actions according to a very narrow set of tribal rules, those who think for themselves will be deemed dangerous to the throne. Strange that it is commendable to kill in the name of the “king” (the old man on the throne) but it isn’t acceptable to take one’s own life or stop the potential development of life within the boundaries of one’s own skin.

  13. I remember when a nurse in Mass. was Kevorkian’s #35. Since she had the same severe illness that I have, CFS/ME, I paid attention to the news story as it unfolded. She was said to have asked Kevorkian’s help kill her because “she didn’t want to become a burden to her family” and “depression” was alleged. I am still sad about it. I urge you to please read postings on the excellent website, Not Dead Yet, I support the group. Please. The website is the group’s blog, written by researcher Stephen Drake. One of the founders is attorney Diane Coleman. It is written from the point of view of those of us who are disabled. I became disabled in my early 40s, halfway through my art career. I just reached 7 0 – 17 1/2 Leap Year birthdays. We need assistance to live. I enjoy living. Think about it: I didn’t get my education in disability until I became ill.

  14. I am rather surprised at some of the comments. And yet, knowledge about people with severe disabilities is so limited and distorted in movies, tv, etc.

  15. Barbara hampton-barclay says:

    Is it really about disabilities or is it about choice. The fearmongers would have us believe that the right to choose death would unfairly impact the disabled. My mother is 99 years old and bed ridden. She is losing her hearing and can only be moved by caregivers because of arthritis and her atrophied muscles.her dementia is getting worse. I love her and I am glad that she is still in my life and wants to continue living. If she were to decide that she wanted to leave her poor quality of life, I would like to respect that also.
    I am now 66 and when I decide that i no longer want to live, I would like to die with dignity with my family around me to tell them how much I love them one last time.
    Euthanasia should not be thought of as a solution for physically disabled people only. Just as organ donation was considered many years ago to be
    against god’s will”, I think at some point Euthanasia will be accepted as a choice made by rational human beings.

  16. Wow, this article attempts to completely strip people with disabilities (NOT “The Disabled”, people with disabilities) of all agency and political thought. Well, here’s a clue: we’re right here, we have agency, and we’re not being enrolled or used or ‘enlisted’ by right-wing anti-choicers.

    A nuanced discussion from the standpoint of disabled feminists on how the entrenched, horrendous, far-reaching ableism in our cultures affects the issues of assisted suicide and abortion is entirely possible, and is happening elsewhere. It sure doesn’t feel safe here, however, where the horrifyingly-common “if I was you I’d /want/ to die” attitude seems to reign supreme.

  17. I’m very appalled to see a post on the Ms Magazine blog acting like people with disabilities as unthinking pawns of the religious right rather than people. Some people with disabilities support the right to die. Others do not. Others do in some cases and not in others. Each of us has come to the conclusions we have because we are reasoning individuals. Gosh, some of us are even feminists who use a feminist lens to come to our decisions, in any area of that spectrum.

    Frankly, people with disabilities deserve better treatment than you have given them here. We are not a throw-away line so you can score some sort of points. We are people, and I’m appalled that a feminist magazine like Ms would publish something that would state otherwise.

  18. Lauredhel offers a worthwhile response about this post’s erasure of PWD’s agency.

  19. lilacsigil says:

    It’s disappointing that you portray “the disabled” as pawns of the anti-choicers, rather than independent political activists with a long and complex history. Disabled people have good reason to be wary of euthanasia – as they do of abortion – and this can and is expressed without assuming their lack of agency or that they are attempting to limit the agency of others.

    People often say that they would like to die if they can’t do X independently – but many disabled people live without being able to, say, walk, breathe or go to the toilet independently. Framing your life with a disability as worthless impacts heavily on perception of their lives, and as a group often relying on public good will rather than appropriate legal enforcement, this is a scary and vulnerable position.

  20. Has anyone considered that if PWD weren’t so marginalized, many of our quality of life, however you define that, wouldn’t be so low? So, fellow feminists, what are you doing to help people want to live?

  21. Assiya says:

    I am a feminist with a disability, not part of “the disabled.” But, more importantly, I am a pawn of no one.

    This is ridiculously offensive. I cannot believe that a supposedly woman-centered magazine would publish a blog post like this that bashes women with disabilities. I am a woman too — not just part of the ‘other,” not just my disability.

  22. Err, I should clarify that all the other comments were m=not up when I submitted this comment, there was just a bunch of ableist rhetoric.

  23. I’m disabled and pro-choice, so I guess the right-wing recruiters missed me.

    I support women’s right to choose an abortion. Absolutely, wholeheartedly. This doesn’t keep me from being upset when people assume that women would obviously want to abort a fetus with a genetic disability. Or from feeling outraged when governments propose laws that would make it illegal to use in-vitro fertilization to implant an embryo with a genetic abnormality. This doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where genetic disabilities have been pre-natally tested away.

    The right to die is just as complicated. I think people should be allowed to make their own life choices, but at the same time I think that if disability was not constantly portrayed as inherently tragic and awful, less disabled people would want to die. When so many people talk about assisted suicide by saying “I know I would rather die than live in that condition,” it only further marginalizes people with disabilities, and keeps people reacting to disability with pity and horror. The fact is that a lot of disabled people are happy living and are in control of their lives, no matter what kind of care they need. Where are their voices in our media?

  24. I absolutely believe that Choice crosses all fronts in our lives. I believe each and every individual has a right to choose how his or her life should play out. If they choose to end it due to severe illness or pain, they should have that right, in my opinion.

    The only sticking point for me in terms of seeing Right to Die legislation is that I DON’T support straight-up suicide due to depression. I have a real issue with that, but I remain hopeful that maybe, if this does come up for REAL debate and consideration, things can be put in place (rules or what-have-you) to address that.

    The issues are absolutely related, though. No question.

  25. Assiya says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with zhyena.

    I would also add that if people with disabilities were given the services and technologies they may need — not warehoused in institutions, treated with disdain, and charged huge amounts for medical care and services — and if insurance actually consistently covered assistive devices, fewer people with disabilities would decide to take their lives.

  26. I have to question how often the choice of suicide is truly a fully informed free choice. Too often, that choice is colored by insurance companies making the life of a sick or disabled person miserable, by refusing treatment or assistance that might be helpful. The choice can also be colored by misinformation from doctors, telling a terminally ill person there is nothing that can be done. There may be nothing in the realm of conventional medicine that would help, but it is a matter of dispute whether conventional medicine represents the be-all and end-all of medicine, especially for treating cancer.

  27. Erin W. says:

    To the PWD who have read this and felt offended by Ms. or the blogger Ms. King, your energy is commendable, your direction is inaccurate. Ms. King did not write this blog with a personally marginalized opinion of PWD. She was recounting an incident which actually occurred during the major media blitz protesting Dr. Kevorkian. It does not behoove us as feminists or as any sort of equal rights activitsts, to take things out of context and feel personally maligned or marginalized by them. Instead, we need to educate ourselves with our history. The good and the bad. Carol, thank you for helping to bring all of our stories into the open, where we can all share and learn from each other!

  28. Erin W, I’m pretty appalled by your patronizing comment. I don’t think I or any of the other PWD who have commented here have taken Ms. King’s remarks out of context.

    I certainly believe that Ms. King did not intend to marginalize disabled people with her comment, but that was the result. Furthermore, her statement reflects societal prejudices that perhaps Ms. King has not fully examined in herself. Referring to “the disabled,” for instance, which is othering and implies that disabled people are of one mind.

    Go back to the comment in question: “The ‘right-to-lifers’ enlisted the disabled in their cause.” Now substitute “the Asian-Americans,” “the feminists,” or “the homosexuals” for “the disabled.” Would Ms. King refer to any of these groups in this way? Would she reduce any of these groups to one opinion, or ignore the agency of any of these groups by speaking of them as pawns of another political agenda?

    Probably not. But she would speak about disabled people in this way. She would portray us in that light. How could I NOT feel marginalized by that?

  29. “Go back to the comment in question: “The ‘right-to-lifers’ enlisted the disabled in their cause.” Now substitute “the Asian-Americans,” “the feminists,” or “the homosexuals” for “the disabled.” Would Ms. King refer to any of these groups in this way? Would she reduce any of these groups to one opinion, or ignore the agency of any of these groups by speaking of them as pawns of another political agenda?”
    Yes this. Thank you.

    It does behoove feminists to apologise and then edit to reflect that we’ve really understood.

  30. There is something a bit distressing about commenting to point out the way that someone has marginalized, ignored, and dismissed the voices and concerns of people with disabilities, to have someone respond by telling us that we’re really reading too much into it. No one meant anything by it, they were just, you know, telling it like it is.

    We are not pawns to anyone. We have our own opinions – varied and diverse, just as though we were people who had different opinions on things. Dismissing people with disabilities who protest against Kevorkian as being pawns of the religious right is not an argument, or relating an incident. It doesn’t even address what people with disabilities who have issues with Kevorkian have said, and are still saying today.

    There is an entire history of treating people with disabilities like they are incapable of thinking or acting for themselves. Regardless of what Ms King’s intention was, that history is still there. This is not a vacuum, and the attitudes she expresses are not somehow okay because of her intention.

  31. Both the writer and the editors of the Ms. blog would like to apologize for using the expression “the disabled” rather than “people with disabilities” in this post. It was careless on our parts not to catch both the inaccuracy and the offensiveness of that term. Also, the post has been edited to reflect that the right wing TRIED to enlist people with disabilities in their campaign; quite obviously, people with disabilities have the agency to refuse such overtures.

  32. Thank you very much for your edit and apology.

  33. I know two people who went to Dr. Death. Neither of them were terminally ill. Both of them had chronic illnesses that I have, involving pain and fatigue. Bill was a man who was in severe poverty, as most PWDs are. Judith was a woman whose husband had been charged with domestic violence. She — like most women who were murdered by Kevorkian — gave her primary reason as not wanting to be a burden. She did not have decent support in her home to live independently; she had to rely on her husband. In a feminist world, should this be how life and death are chosen?
    The man who went to Kevorkian was in chronic pain. It is often impossible for people in the US to get effective pain management — not because such medications do not exist, but because doctors are afraid to prescribe them. Bill did not die because he was terminally ill, he died of poverty and medical neglect. Is this a real choice between life and death, or is it a choice between misery caused by institutionalized oppression (ableism) and death?
    Also, if you read materials from Ragged Edge magazine (formerly The Disability Rag) or Not Dead Yet, you will find FACTS — statistics, not opinions — about who Kevorkian killed. The majority of his victims were women, AND the majority for both genders were NOT TERMINALLY ILL; they were disabled.
    To liken the pro-choice movement with the activities of a serial killer of disabled people does major damage to the pro-choice movement.
    Ms., it is time you fully incorporated feminists with disabilities into your magazine and blogs. Having the occasional article now and then about one well-known woman with a disability or paying lip service when listing “isms” is not the same as learning the issues and incorporating them fully into your editorial vision. It is long long long past time that Ms. moved disability issues from the margins to the center.

  34. I’ll be replying to both versions of this blog entry on the NDY blog later today. For starters, I’ll say that the edit is not really an improvement. The sentence you have is this:
    “The “right-to-lifers” tried to enlist people with disabilities in their cause when they cautioned that allowing people to choose to die would soon become their “duty to die.”

    Uninformed readers will take that to mean that there was no disability-based opposition to Kevorkian. As Sharon and others have pointed out, the majority of Kevorkian’s body count consisted of people who were NOT terminally ill. They had chronic conditions and disabilities. Many had been abandoned by spouses, suffered financial losses, were socially isolated and felt that their lives had lost value to *others*.

    Put in its simplest form, many disability activists grew wary of the “right to die” movement when witnessing the increase in a social phenomenon related to suicide coverage – while the suicides of young, healthy and nondisabled people get treated as preventable tragedies, the suicides of old, ill and disabled people get applauded and assisted. When you’re on the receiving end of that kind of approval in terms of your own suicide, it doesn’t sound too much like respect when you’re singled out for the honor.

  35. Ending thought:

    It seems that there are only two ways that proponents of Kevorkian and assisted suicide can deal with disability activists who oppose legalization:

    1. Accuse us of being tools of the Religious Right;
    2. Pretend that we don’t exist.

    Never acknowledge the difference in perspective and discuss the merits of our arguments – that would call for respect, wouldn’t it?

  36. Wendi Wicks says:

    I am really disappointed with conceptually inadequate pieces such as this. From the other side of the world, I speak with the voices of my community of disabled women in my head, to say in unequivocal terms, that we find Jack Kevorkian’s behaviors deeply unacceptable and disvaluing of our lives and don’t regard him as a civic benefactor: he was a man who killed vulnerable people.
    The article is short on logic, fact and analysis. It conflates players and motives in a reckless way. It trumpet’s Kevorkian’s marginalisation by doing just that to the people who, supposedly read too much into what he was doing. It insults and offends on every level. And it ignores the fact that Jack Kevorkian mainly killed people who were not terminally ill and wanted to die: they were poor and isolated disabled people.
    Jack may have played the flute and wrote poetry, but it no more makes him sensitive and compassionate than was tree loving vegetarian Adolf Hitler. Shame on you for this piece.

  37. PioneerGrrrl says:

    I do think that my community ought to be able to choose assisted suicide for ourselves if we want. Quality of life ought to count as much as quantity.

    And the people protesting suicide (which I never understood being illegal anyways) would protect life more by making health care accessible/affordable, giving people a living wage…etc.

    If it’s your own body, you should decide what happens to it.

  38. PioneerGrrrl says:

    In this current society with current sociopolitical flaws and barriers against people with disabilities, we do not necessarily and should not have to have a terminal illness to want to die.

    Our access to affordable health care has supposedly been won. But it is being fought by many state attorney generals. While their health care is subsidized on the public dollar, they are ‘offended’ that American taxpayers, including people with pre-existing medical conditions, will at last be able to afford our medicines and treatments without loosing our homes.

    This is very frustrating. And I can see where some people are not able to handle it. Not knowing if you can obtain necessary medicines does place a tremendous amount of stress on you.

  39. I believe euthanasia should be legal. No living thing should be forced to die a long and painful death.

    I also am pro-choice because I support population control. In my estimation, there are one billion too many people on planet Earth. In the future, idiots should be restricted from reproduction. Darwinism is not working fast enough to protect the planet from the scourge of idiots.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by s.e. smith. s.e. smith said: Actually, people with disabilities are perfectly capable of making reasoned choices on their own, thanks, Ms. […]

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