Kevorkian, Pauling and a Twist on Capital Punishment

Page 1 of Kevorkian's 1958 paper on capital punishment and medical research.

The New York Times has published a detailed obituary of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the medical pathologist famed for his active support and engagement with physician-assisted suicide.  Kevorkian died this morning in a Michigan hospital.  For us, news of his passing immediately brought to mind a fascinating exchange that he carried out with Linus Pauling in the 1970s.

As the Times piece briefly mentions, before he achieved international notoriety – and eventually imprisonment – for assisting the premature deaths of terminally ill individuals, Kevorkian lobbied in favor of a different death-related practice.  As first outlined in a 1958 paper, Kevorkian proposed that prisoners convicted to death be given the option of essentially donating their deaths to science.  The crux of Kevorkian’s proposal, which was delivered at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, went as follows:

I propose that prisoners condemned to death under capital punishment be allowed to submit, by their own choice, to medical experimentation under surgical anesthesia, to be induced at the set minute of execution, as a form of execution in lieu of the conventional methods prescribed by law.

…Most of us are well aware that the ultimate ‘laboratory’ for testing every medical fact, concept or device is man himself….In this logical and proper sequence of trial, the human subject, at the end, the ‘guinea pig,’ is, and always will be, the most difficult link to procure.

…Viewing the problem purely realistically, capital punishment, as it exists today, offers an unrivaled opportunity to break these limits.  It can do this by introducing into the situation an involuntary factor without destroying the necessary safeguard of consent.

Kevorkian suggested that these types of medical experiments

should be funneled from all over the civilized world into a central agency, perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations….Of necessity, the experiments should be extremely imaginative, should deal with things completely uninvestigatable in living men under usual circumstances….Multiple experiments may be done simultaneously or sequentially on different parts or systems of a single body and could conceivably last for days under uninterrupted anesthesia stringently controlled by at least two board anesthesiologists.  If experimentation does not cause death, it would ultimately be induced by an overdose of the anesthetic agent.

Kevorkian points out that there would likely be “real and valid criticisms” to his proposal “from the legal side,” and that “for society, there would be some added financial expense.”  For the condemned, Kevorkian saw few disadvantages and “for medical research, there is no seeming disadvantage.”

Indeed, from the perspective of the prisoner, the prospect of dying for science could even mitigate a major philosophical objection to capital punishment.

In the case of the execution of innocent persons (a remote possibility), it would give the victim perhaps a little solace in having an opportunity to transform an ugly act of human injustice into one of some gain for mankind, at least, and to thereby partially rectify the otherwise total injustice of it all.

Kevorkian would extend his thoughts on this proposal in later articles and codify many of them in a 1960 book, Medical Research and the Death Penalty.  He also actively solicited the support of notable figures in favor of his idea.  In 1973 Kevorkian sent Pauling a packet of materials that included copies of letters that he had received from a number of scientists and physicians expressing their support – sometimes hedging – of the proposal.

Pauling appears to have lent an initial vote of support via a phone conversation that he and Kevorkian conducted in January 1973.  In a letter of thanks, Kevorkian writes

As emphasized in my papers, I neither support nor oppose capital punishment; my only contention is that wherever and whenever it is to be irrevocably used some condemned persons should be given this choice.  Even opponents to the death penalty (such as Dr. [Hans] Selye and yourself) have admitted that this proposal is a fair compromise and desirable if the death penalty is not to be totally abolished.

Later in the letter, Kevorkian requests a written statement of support from Pauling, for use in an upcoming hearing to be held by the Florida legislature.  Pauling responded in kind, writing “I support your proposal about an alternative method of capital punishment.”

Three and a half years later, in November 1976, Kevorkian wrote again, for the final time.  At that point, capital punishment in the U.S. had been suspended but, as Kevorkian noted, “it seems that we are on the verge of seeing a resumption of executions, perhaps soon in Utah.  I plan to resume my campaign and would like to know if you still endorse the idea and still allow me to cite your endorsement publicly.”

By now, Pauling was starting to have his doubts.  In a letter written promptly upon his receipt of Kevorkian’s request, he wrote

I am so busy at the present time that it would be difficult for me to look into the matter, and in fact my ideas have changed somewhat.  I think that the best form of execution, if people are to be executed, is the one that causes the person the least suffering.  I am not sure that this idea is compatible with your proposal.

No matter one’s ultimate opinion on Kevorkian’s proposal, the idea is unquestionably thought provoking.  For those interested in reading more on the subject, see the following:

  • “Capital Punishment or Capital Gain?” Original 1958 paper republished in Crime in America, Herbert A. Bloch, ed.  New York: Philosophical Library, 1961.
  • “Medical Research and the Death Penalty: A Dialogue,” J. Med. Ed., 35, 10, October 1960.  Later published in book form, New York: Vantage Press, 1960.  Second edition published by Poignant Press, 1983.
  • “The Nobler Execution,” Ararat, Summer 1961.