Yesterday Jack Kevorkian assisted the suicide of a disabled woman. At least half of the people whose suicides he has abetted have been disabled. As leaders in the disability community, we are outraged that Michigan authorities allow his killing spree to go on. We are incensed that his repeated declarations of contempt for the lives of our people have been ignored.
Kevorkian has advocated assisted suicide for disabled people all along. A March 1990 Detroit Free Press Magazine story announced: "Oppressed by a fatal disease, a severe handicap, a crippling deformity? ....Show him proper, compelling medical evidence that you should die, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian will help you kill yourself, free of charge." In a February 1992 medical journal article, he proposed euthanasia centers, not only for terminally-ill persons, but for those with chronic conditions too.
He also advocates an "auction market for available organs" to be removed from "subjects" "hopelessly crippled by arthritis or malformations." The proceeds from sale of euthanized disabled persons' organs could partly go to family members whose financial burdens would be relieved and "their standard of living enhanced."
Kevorkian not only views disabled people as having worthless and burdensome lives, he sees us as a drain on society. He told a Michigan Court in August 1990: "The voluntary self-elimination of individual and (sic) mortally diseased and crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare."
Though Kevorkian claims to support individual autonomy, he would give doctors power to decide that people with disabilities would be better off dead. Time Magazine asked him, "How do you decide whom to help? Does the patient have to suffer from a life-threatening illness?" "No, of course not," replied Kevorkian. "And it doesn't have to be painful, as with quadriplegia. But your life quality has to be nil." "And who decides that?" asked Time. "That's up to physicians," said Kevorkian, "and nobody can gainsay what doctors say. It all boils down to the integrity of the doctors." Many people with disabilities have had doctors dismiss their "quality of life" as "nil" and recommend withholding medical treatment to cause their deaths. Kevorkian's plan presents an even more serious threat to disabled people.
Disabled people who opt for suicide often do not to receive appropriate psychological evaluation or crisis intervention. There is an automatic assumption that they want to die because of their disabilities and that this is a rational choice. Other factors in their situation are ignored.
David Rivlin, quadriplegic from a spinal-cord injury and breathing on a ventilator, "chose" to die. He attended Oakland University, in Michigan, aiming to become a psychologist or a college teacher. And he struggled to live in his own apartment. But "independent living" proved impossible because the state of Michigan granted him less than $300 a month to hire aides. Unable to afford adequate help, he kept getting sick and having to enter nursing homes. The state paid the nursing homes $230 a day.
At first, Rivlin clung to the hope he might escape the nursing home. After three years, he concluded he would never get out and decided he would rather be dead. So he got a court order authorizing a doctor to sedate him and disconnect his ventilator.
Days before Rivlin died, a reporter asked him what he thought about society's view of disabled people. "It sucks," said Rivlin. "Transportation, attitudes, financial help, it's all bad."
Jack Kevorkian visited David Rivlin, later describing him as "having to be turned and fed and everything done for him. Highly intelligent man, who had decided that his life now had no meaning and no need to go on....After that case, I knew we had to have a device to help people like Mr. Rivlin, and that's when I started making it" -- his notorious suicide machine.
Jack Kevorkian viewed David Rivlin through the prism of ignorance and prejudice. He disregarded the social factors that cause some people with disabilities to decide that their lives have "no meaning" and are unendurable: public policies that force them into nursing homes, inadequate medical and particularly pain-management treatment, denial of appropriate psychological supports, discrimination in obtaining health insurance, resulting financial distress, the attitude that they burden their families and society, and the deep prejudice that their lives are worthless.
We urge public attention to the real reasons some people with disabilities choose suicide. We call upon the news media to report Kevorkian's bigotted opinions of disabled people. We demand that Michigan authorities stop him from abetting the suicides of people with disabilities.
Jack Kevorkian is no folk hero. He is a contemptible enemy of people with disabilities, and we denounce him.
September 8 1996
It is long past time for the disability community to respond to Jack Kevorkian's lethal assaults on our people. Please forward or circulate the statement, and urge other members of our community to endorse it.
Dr. Paul Longmore is a professor of history at San Franscisco State University, and he himself has had an extensive physical disability for many years. Dr. Longmore is authoring a book of historical research about the history of people with disabilities.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.