Jack Kevorkian's first suicide machine, which he called the Thanatron, delivered the same three chemicals commonly used to execute condemned prisoners: the barbiturate sodium thiopental to induce sleep, pancuronium bromide to paralyze the muscles and sodium chloride to stop the heart. After his medical license was suspended in 1991, Kevorkian had trouble obtaining the drugs, so he switched to the Mercitron, a mask attached to a tank of carbon monoxide.
In both cases, death was a favor that Kevorkian, who proudly eschewed payment for his services, dispensed to people who convinced him they had good reasons for wanting to die. By contrast, the suicide kits that Sharlotte Hydorn sold from her home in El Cajon, Calif., were available to anyone with $60 and a mailing address. Unfortunately, to the extent that the government recognizes a right to suicide, it takes its cues from Kevorkian, who died last Friday at the age of 83, rather than Hydorn, a 91-year-old entrepreneur whose business was shut down by the FBI the week before.
Kevorkian, a retired Michigan pathologist, helped about 130 people suffering from terminal or debilitating and incurable diseases kill themselves between 1990 and 1998, when he crossed the line between suicide assistance and euthanasia by directly administering lethal drugs to a man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Convicted of second-degree murder, Kevorkian served eight years in prison.
Yet the man whom the American Medical Association called "a reckless instrument of death" pointed the way to physician-assisted suicide, which has been legalized in three states and recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a legitimate medical treatment. Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters in 1994, allows a patient to kill himself with doctor-prescribed barbiturates if two physicians certify that he has six months or less to live, he is deemed free of any "psychiatric or psychological disorder" that might impair his judgment, and he makes two requests separated by at least 15 days.
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Oregon physicians who prescribe drugs for suicide cannot be prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act (which requires a doctor's permission slip to purchase the drugs that are most suitable for this purpose). A 2008 ballot initiative created a similar system in Washington state, and a 2009 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court likewise allows doctors to help patients with terminal illnesses hasten their deaths.