Jack Kevorkian and the Right to Choose

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.

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.

Jack 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.

Read more Ms. coverage on arts and entertainment here


Not the singer/songwriter Carole King. Been a feminist for as long as I can remember and committed to reproductive rights even longer.