Al Pacino manages to make Dr. Death lovably eccentric in You Don’t Know Jack, an HBO docudrama about Jack Kevorkian, the retired Michigan pathologist who became nationally notorious in the 1990s as a freelance suicide facilitator. Pacino also portrays Kevorkian’s grandiosity and recklessness, which led to eight years in prison for second-degree murder after multiple acquittals for assisting suicide.
The film, though sympathetic to Kevorkian’s cause, shows he was not really fighting for individual autonomy in matters of life and death. Instead he advocated laws, similar to those since enacted in Oregon and Washington state, that let people who want to kill themselves enlist the assistance of doctors, but only when their motives pass muster with these state-appointed gatekeepers. As Thomas Szasz argues in Fatal Freedom, such assistance is necessary only because the state blocks access to suicide-suitable drugs or because patients and their families want to disguise a moral decision as a medical one.