But his methods were controversial -- more than controversial. They were often deeply disturbing.
I covered two of the Jack Kevorkian trials, and I got to know him a little bit around the courthouse. I found him strong-willed to the point of arrogance, single-minded to the point of obsession and almost devoid of humor. But he could also be courteous, and there is no question he was brave. Above all, he was passionate.
But it is important to remember some forgotten facts about how he went about his business:
1.Most of the People Who Died Under Kevorkian's Direction Were Not Terminally Ill
According to a December 2000 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, only 25 percent were terminally ill, and 7 percent showed no signs of physical illness at all. Thirteen percent had symptoms of clinical depression, and a disproportionate number were divorced, widowed or never married.
The study covered about half of Kevorkian's known "patients" between 1990 and 1998 -- those who were autopsied by the Oakland County, Mich., medical examiner's office -- but there is no reason to believe the numbers would change if all of the people he serviced were included. A 2001 study in The Gerontologist reached similar conclusions. Click here to read the full study.
2. An Astounding 71 Percent of Those Who Died Under Kevorkian's Direction Were Women
The same study revealed this startling, and disturbing, gender discrepancy in Kevorkian's work. Feminist public-health scholars have said that the reason is simple: Men in our society have an expectation that they will be cared for -- by women, by the system, by their greater wealth.
Older women are far more likely to be alone, impoverished, suffering from depression, and generally devalued by our society. Several of the women who went to Kevorkian explained themselves using the exact same words: They "did not want to be a burden." In some ways, there is nothing more worthless in American society than a sick old woman. It is likely that many of the women who sought Kevorkian out with such desperation had internalized that skewed value system.
3. Kevorkian Had No Legitimate Screening System, and Refused All Proposals to Regularize His Procedures
He was a law unto himself. And that arrogance led to a plain and terrible fact: People died under his direction who needed help, legal and psychiatric help -- not poison. In 1997, The Detroit Free Press investigated and profiled many of those who died under Kevorkian's direction. Several women were victims of domestic violence. Many of his patients were depressed at a recent diagnosis of a challenging disease -- multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, cancer. Others had very treatable conditions: diabetes, back pain, arthritis.
And then there was the case of the woman who traveled to Michigan to die, accompanied by her encouraging husband. He remarried a few weeks later.
To millions of Americans, Jack Kevorkian was a crusader and a champion of human rights.
But Kevorkian's critics have often pointed to these facts as evidence that his motives were not pure and his methods deeply flawed. They also note that over the course of his career, he seemed obsessed with death, painted gruesome scenes using human blood, and that, as a pathologist, he had never really treated patients prior to helping them die.
To these critics -- in the disabled community, among some feminists and among many pro-life Christians -- the final verdict on this controversial man is the one pronounced by former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Jack Kevorkian, he said, was "America's most successful serial killer."
And, long ago, he lost the right to be called "doctor." Michigan pulled his state medical license in 1991 and his California license was revoked two years later.