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Jack Kevorkian, HBO, and the Ethics of Euthanasia

7th May 2010

In the new HBO film You Don’t Know Jack, Al Pacino portrays Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the doctor best-known for his battle to grant patients what he considered to be one of their most basic human rights–the right to die. The film chronicles Kevorkian’s quest, court battles, and ultimate sacrifice. The movie also stars Susan Sarandon, Danny Huston, John Goodman, and Brenda Vaccaro, and was directed by Barry Levinson and written by Adam Mazer.

Euthanasia has been a topic of passionate national debate, with Kevorkian at the center of the storm. Two states, Oregon and Washington, have legalized doctor-assisted suicide since Kevorkian’s crusade began in the late 1980s. With a myriad of ethical, legal, and medical implications, there is always something new to say about the topic.

Killing and Letting Die, edited by Bonnie Steinbock and Alistair Norcross, is a collection of essays examining what euthanasia means, especially in relation to letting a patient die. What are the differences? What are the similarities?

The book is divided into two sections. The first, “Euthanasia and the Termination of Life-Prolonging Treatment” includes an examination of the 1976 Karen Quinlan Supreme Court decision and selections from the 1990 Supreme Court decision in the case of Nancy Cruzan. Featured are articles by law professor George Fletcher and philosophers Michael Tooley, James Rachels, and Bonnie Steinbock, with new articles by Rachels, and Thomas Sullivan. The second section, “Philosophical Considerations,” probes more deeply into the theoretical issues raised by the killing/letting die controversy, illustrating exceptionally well the dispute between two rival theories of ethics, consequentialism and deontology. It also includes a corpus of the standard thought on the debate by Jonathan Bennet, Daniel Dinello, Jeffrie Murphy, John Harris, Philipa Foot, Richard Trammell, and N. Ann Davis, and adds articles new to this edition by Bennett, Foot, Warren Quinn, Jeff McMahan, and Judith Lichtenberg.