The phenomenon that is Jack Kevorkian continues to unfold in a truly appalling way. When he began his assisted campaign in 1991, he initially received bad press. However, once he successfully redefined his purposes as “preventing suffering,” the media and public’s attitudes shifted dramatically. Kevorkian’s poll ratings soared. It didn’t even matter to most people that he used carbon monoxide to help kill many of his clients—they weren’t patients as he was not a treating or licensed physician—nor even that he often provided his deadly services in the back of his rusty van.
As the decade progressed, juries repeatedly refused to convict him for assisting suicides, even though there was no factual dispute that he facilitated suicides. The prosecutor of Oakland County, Michigan, was voted out of office when his rival ran on a plank of giving Kevorkian a free hand. As the end of the 1990s appeared on the horizon, Kevorkian literally had a free hand and his assisted suicides barely made the news.
Pride goeth before the fall. Kevorkian brought about his own downfall by moving beyond assisted suicide to active euthanasia. In 1998, he videotaped himself lethally injecting Thomas Youk, and then took the tape to his friend and supporter, Mike Wallace, at 60 Minutes for immediate airing. In this act of naked egoism, people saw that Kevorkian cared most about Kevorkian, and he was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 and imprisoned for eight years.
He was paroled in 2007 for good behavior and after his lawyer argued that his health was in such severe decline that he might not live much longer. Once out, he seems to have had a miraculous recovery: He has spent the last three years traveling the country for interviews and university speeches to the tune of $50,000 honoraria. And now, A-List Hollywood biggie, Al Pacino, has played Kevorkian in a puff bio-pic that revised the true history and character of Kevorkian to the point that he could be a funny character on The Muppets. Reflecting the times in which we live, the movie has won several prestigious show business awards.
If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death—even superficially—it will have to be through obitiatry. Research using cultured cells and tissues and live animals may yield objective biological data, and eventually perhaps even some clues about the essence of mere vitality or existence. But knowledge about the essence of human death will of necessity require insight into the nature of the unique awareness or consciousness that characterizes cognitive human life. That is only possible through obitiatric research on living human bodies, and most likely concentrating on the central nervous system.
This clearly disturbed man was just called “extraordinary” at the Golden Globes and “one of the nation’s most prominent physicians” at a UCLA “Evening with Jack Kevorkian.”
Before the next round of accolades, here are a few more facts about Kevorkian that have been as surely airbrushed from history as Trotsky was by Stalin:
That a disturbed man like Jack Kevorkian can be so touted, so remade, should make us all pause and take stock of where our nation and our culture are going. Still, considering all that has transpired in the last twenty years, I cannot escape the sinking thought that the real problem is not Jack Kevorkian: It is us.
CBC special consultant Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a lawyer for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.