Al Pacino stars in the TV life story of 'Doctor Death'

Film about Jack Kevorkian reignites debate over issue of assisted suicide

The Michigan physician they used to call "Dr Death" because of his record of helping over 100 patients escape terminal disease through euthanasia – before prosecutors finally put him in prison a decade ago – is back. More than that, he and the issue of assisted suicide will this weekend barge into the front rooms of millions of Americans.

He is Dr Jack Kevorkian, who, three years after being released from prison on condition that he desists from euthanizing anyone else, is not himself on a national tour, even though he is still campaigning for the legalisation of assisted suicide. He is, however, the subject of a major new HBO television film about his life and his quest.

If casting can be a form of flattery, Dr Kevorkian, now 81, must surely be preening. Impishly titled You Don't Know Jack, the film stars Al Pacino in the lead role. Both men were at a private screening of the film in Detroit on Thursday alongside its director, Barry Levinson, whose previous works for the cinema have included Tin Men and Diner.

That the assisted-suicide debate was at its most intense in the US during the 1990s is thanks to Kevorkian. His gaunt looks and arrogant zeal polarised an American public who recognised the possible good in his mission but never warmed to the man. He escaped conviction four times.

Kevorkian was finally found guilty of second-degree murder in March 1999 after attaching Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old man with a terminal neuro-degenerative disease, to his poison-administering contraption he called the Mercitron. He moreover allowed the cameras in so that the passing of Mr Youk became a segment on the weekly CBS TV current affairs magazine, 60 Minutes.

Kevorkian's only reported comment to Mr Levinson after Thursday's first screening was in praise of its "wonderful editing". But if the former doctor holds any hope that the HBO film will reignite national debate on the topic, it will cheer him to read the critics' reviews this weekend. By all accounts it is a deft effort that just manages to navigate between the twin sins of either glamourising or demonising the doctor and the questionable service he was providing.

But while the struggle over euthanasia may have grown noisier in other countries in recent times, not least in Britain, it has by no means ended in the US where only three states currently permit doctor-assisted suicide.

Oregon was the first state to legalise assisted suicide followed by Washington. Most recently, a decision last December by the state Supreme Court in Montana said that there was nothing on the books that exposed doctors to prosecution if they prescribe lethal drugs to a terminally ill person.

The court ruling in Montana was welcomed by Barbara Combs Lee, President of the Compassion and Choice pressure group. "Terminally ill patients are gaining peace of mind knowing they have an option," she said.

If most Americans have fixed opinions on the question of assisted suicide, what they think of Dr Death himself may be about to change. Or so Mr Pacino thinks. "Jack Kevorkian is a person you think you know. But at the end of the story, you find yourself saying, 'He's different than I would have thought he would be'," the actor told reporters.

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