Dr. Jack Kevorkian, often referred to by his infamous nickname Dr. Death, may not have been the only doctor who believed in helping suffering patients through assisted suicide, but twenty years ago, he was the only one who took action on this belief and did so publicly. His actions highlighted an important truth – medical science advanced in a way that kept many alive, but without much quality during that prolonged life.

Attorney Geoffrey N. Fieger would eventually represent Kevorkian in court. Having already detailed the sufferings of his patients through hours of videotaped consultations, Kevorkian had done a great service for his own case. During jury selection, Geoffrey cleverly chose a large number of older individuals or those who may have been exposed to the suffering of others. Geoffrey secured a series of acquittals for Kevorkian and, perhaps as a result of this case and the media spotlight placed on it, physician-assisted suicide shed its taboo stigma.

Kevorkian, however, was later convicted of second-degree murder after essentially euthanizing a man dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He fired Geoffrey, opting to represent himself, but was convicted and sent to prison in 1999. Kevorkian’s case and his beliefs pushed the idea of self-determination to the forefront in the medical community, where suffering and a desire to die are often intertwined, yet sometimes at odds, depending on the circumstances.

This year, two Democratic state representatives – Rep. Tom Cochran and Sam Singh – revived these questions, introducing a bill that is identical to Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” act. This would legally grant a physician the ability to prescribe drugs a terminally ill patient could use to end his or her life. Looking back at the Kevorkian case, this bill would be in line with Geoffrey’s defense and belief, which was that death is and should be a personal decision.

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