A Right to Die?

Should doctors be allowed to help suffering patients die? In 1990, with his homemade suicide machine, Dr. Jack Kevorkian raised that question. It’s an issue Americans still struggle with today.

In 1990, Dr. Jack Kevorkian used a homemade suicide machine to help a 54-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, Janet Adkins, end her life. Adkins was the first of many patients Kevorkian helped to die, but her case began a long debate over the ethics of assisted suicide.

Kevorkian and his machine were shocking. But in the 1990s the issue was also being raised by mainstream doctors, like Dr. Timothy Quill, of Rochester NY. He published an article about his experience prescribing life-ending medication to a long time patient. And, in 1994, Oregon voters passed a ballot initiative allowing doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminal patients. Since then physician-assisted dying has become legal in California, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.

But for doctors and patients in the rest of the nation, it’s a wrenching issue. The case of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who suffered from brain cancer, brought the subject to the fore, and more and more state legislatures are considering the issue.

For teachers
  • Producer: Jill Rosenbaum
  • Editor: Anne Alvergue
  • Reporter: Olivia Katrandjian