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Issue 2


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The All-Too-Familiar Story

By Steven N. Drake


Jack Kevorkian -- "Dr. Death" -- managed to make news again last December, when Reuters wire service sent out an article on a new study on Kevorkian appearing in the current New England Journal of Medicine. The "new" finding was that the majority of people who died at Kevorkian's hands weren't terminally ill.

It was hard for many of us who have followed the Kevorkian saga to take this seriously as "news." The disability press has been reporting on Kevorkian for years and has taken serious notice of his active agenda of aiding the suicides of disabled people.

Attempted suicide, completed

Read about Not Dead Yet

The disability press wasn't the only force out there telling the story of the true nature of Kevorkian's body count, though. Activists in the disability community also managed to get op-eds on Kevorkian published in newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe.

A 1996 New Republic article by Stephanie Guttman reported on "Death and the Maiden: Kevorkian's woman problem." While Guttman didn't deal with the "disabled vs. terminal" issue per se, she made it clear that the women who died at Kevorkian's hands made up the majority of his total body count. She noted that most of the women had less severe illnesses than the men who went to Kevorkian. At the time of the article, Kevorkian's official body count was 28.

In 1997, a further analysis of Kevorkian's body count appeared in prominent media outlets. Michael Betzold's "How Jack Kevorkian became a national hero" ran in The New Republic. Betzold, who had worked as a reporter at the Detroit News, had written the 1993 book Appointment with Doctor Death. His cousin, Martha Ruwart, was the 15th public "client" of Kevorkian. Betzold contrasted public perception of Kevorkian with the reality of the man, his activities and goals.

Betzold began his New Republic article by noting that "Kevorkian advocates a society that allows euthanasia for the dying, the disabled, the mentally ill, infants with birth defects and comatose adults; and he sanctions experiments prior to their death and organ harvesting."

That seems pretty clear. Betzold goes on to talk about problems with press coverage. Not one to mince words, he attributes the popularity of Kevorkian partly to a "failure of a lazy, sloppy and biased press." He focuses most of his commentary on Jack Lessenberry, a Michigan journalist who covered Kevorkian for the New York Times. As Betzold tells it, Lessenberry is a personal advocate of euthanasia and assisted suicide. While most of us would agree that Lessenberry is entitled to his private viewpoint, Betzold claims that Lessenberry's personal bias has affected the quality and accuracy of his coverage of Kevorkian."

One of the examples used by Betzold is the coverage the Times, thanks to Lessenberry, gave to the death of Judith Curren. Curren was a woman with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. She also had a history of depression, and had filed a series of abuse complaints against her husband. This death caused a short burst of criticism from even some previous supporters of Kevorkian. The New York Times articles by Lessenberry were virtually the only major news coverage to omit mentioning the messy details of Curren's domestic situation. (For those with longer memories, the New York Times was also the only major U.S. newspaper that never mentioned the 500 protesters with disabilities in front of the Supreme Court when oral arguments were heard on assisted suicide in January, 1997.)

In March 1997, The Detroit Free Press's team of journalists and researchers published an extensive analysis of the people who went to Kevorkian. When "The Suicide Machine" ran, the official body count stood at 47.

Among the findings reported in "The Suicide Machine":

  • 60 percent were not terminally ill.

  • 17 of the 47 could have lived indefinitely.

  • 13 of the 47 had no pain complaints.

  • 32 of the 47 were women.

    The statistics didn't go unnoticed in the disability community, either. Not Dead Yet, the disability rights group that leads the disability community's opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, had formed shortly after Jack Kevorkian was acquitted in the assisted suicides of two women with nonterminal disabilities.

    In 1999, OMEGA: Journal of Death and Dying devoted an issue to Kevorkian and related issues. Dr. Kalman Kaplan, a professor of psychology at Detroit's Wayne State University, edited the issue and wrote two extensive articles that included "psychological autopsies" of people who died at Kevorkian's hand. Kaplan had been studying the Kevorkian phenomenon for years. He worked with the Detroit Free Press on "The Suicide Machine" and was quoted in Guttman's New Republic article.

    Looking at the first 47 official "clients" of Kevorkian, Kaplan and his team saw trends that were troubling:

  • 36 percent were described as depressed.

  • 66 percent had some disability (this is probably an underestimate due to definition of disability used by the authors.).

  • 90 percent had a fear of dependency.

  • 68.1 percent were women.

  • Men were three times as likely as women to have actual terminal illnesses.

    In an extended analysis of data concerning the total public list of Kevorkian clients, Kaplan looked at differences in Kevorkian's activities according to "phase" of his career. Kaplan's research reconfirmed the findings about Kevorkian's "clients" that had been reported the Detroit Free Press and Guttman's article, with only minor variation.

    This is the background and the context that existed at the time of the publication of the NEJM study, which was limited to 69 of the people who ended their lives with Kevorkian at their side. This was intentional, limiting the cases to those autopsied by L.J. Dragovic, Medical Examiner for Oakland County, MI.

    The study, summarized in the correspondence section of the NEJM, found that:

  • 49 of 69 were women.

  • Only 17 of the 69 were terminally ill.

  • 24 of 69 complained of pain.

  • 50 of 69 had experienced a recent decline in health status.

    Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

    The question is, why didn't it all sound familiar to the New England Journal of Medicine or, more importantly, to the members of the media that covered the story?

    Unfortunately, I can't offer any explanations from Reuters or the Associated Press. In the week following the press coverage, I called both Reuters and AP asking to talk to the reporters who wrote the articles. I didn't get any callbacks.

    Other individuals involved in research and coverage related to Kevorkian were more forthcoming. Detroit Free Press reporter Kirk Cheyfitz, a catalyst for the project that became "The Suicide Machine," described his reaction to the New York Times article on the NEJM article. "I can't for the life of me figure out what about this the Times thinks is news," Cheyfitz told me. "It shows that the public has a 15-minute attention span."

    Reporters, of course, are part of that public. "Every reporter who comes to Kevorkian coverage is new, not realizing the story has a history. It's endemic," said Cheyfitz, who also noted that few reporters are any good at research.

    What about the researchers? Kaplan, who has been doing research on Kevorkian's career since 1996, isn't surprised that the memories of the press and public fade or distort. One of his research projects involved looking at attitudes and beliefs relating to Kevorkian and assisted suicide.

    "People don't want to believe it," he said in a phone interview. "Liberals tend to underestimate the number of women and overestimate the pain." Kaplan believes that reporters tend to be "liberal" in so-called "choice" issues.

    Kaplan also expressed sentiments familiar to many of us in the disability community. "The liberals think that these people are suffering and that society is keeping them from exercising their sacred right.

    "Conservatives, on the other hand, feel that these people don't have a right to assisted suicide, but don't want to give the resources necessary to live with their condition. They talk about Œsacredness of life,' but won't put their money where their mouth is."

    What, might we wonder, would the researchers from the NEJM think of all this? Donna Cohen, one of the authors of the research published in NEJM, told the Detroit News  that the study provided "new science" to the analysis of these particular deaths. Cohen, a professor in the Department of Aging and Mental Health at the University of South Florida, is widely regarded as an expert in the forensics field; her work on this study provided an independent verification of Dragovic's autopsy reports.

    Still, in a phone interview, Cohen acknowledged that the findings should not have been that big a surprise to people. She attributes at least some of the media attention to the prestige of the New England Journal of Medicine. Like Kaplan, she thinks the data show cause for concern about Kevorkian and the misperceptions that exist about him. She told the Detroit News that "a significant proportion of the people in Kevorkian's cases were simply depressed, desperate, in considerable emotional pain and wanting his help."

    One newspaper article, though, did put the newest chapter in the Kevorkian saga in proper perspective. Detroit Free Press medical writer Patricia Anstett acknowledged the importance of the new study but told readers this newest study only reaffirmed many of the findings of the team involved in "The Suicide Machine."

    The good news is that more people know what we know about Kevorkian now. The bad news, if Cheyfitz and Kaplan are right, is that they'll forget what they know by tomorrow if they haven't already. But at least we'll have something new to give to reporters and other good people who insist on hanging on to the Kevorkian mythology instead of the reality.

    Steven N. Drake is a research analyst for Not Dead Yet.

  • Links:



    DR. JACK KEVORKIAN AND cases of euthanasia in Oakland County, Michigan, 1990-1998 NEJM, 343 (23):1735 - Correspondence, by Roscoe LA, Malphurs JE, Dragovic LJ, Cohen D

    By: Michael Betzold, Momentum Books, 1993

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