Jack Kevorkian’s natural death last week at age 83 reminded me of how profoundly society has changed since 1990 when he provoked outrage after openly admitting assisting the suicide of Janet Adkins. Over the next eight years, Kevorkian engaged in an accelerating crescendo of death, assisting about 130 suicides, and lethally injecting at least one person—ALS patient, Thomas Youk in September 1998—a crime he videotaped and arrogantly had played on 60 Minutes. Enough was finally enough. Kevorkian was convicted of murder and imprisoned for nearly ten years.
Except for Adkins’ death, Kevorkian received generally good press, which usually failed to accurately report the story. For example, the media continually described him—and indeed, still does—as assisting the suicides of people who are “terminally” ill. But he never limited his dark work to those who were dying.
This was true from the very beginning. Adkins, age 54, probably had 10 years to live, and indeed, beat her son at tennis a few days before her death. (Kevorkian later told CNN’s Larry King that he had actually lethally injected Adkins.)
Kevorkian’s next “cases” came in 1991 with the joint assisted suicides of Marjorie Wantz, age 58, and Sherry Miller, age 43, at a cabin located in a public park. Wantz had complained of severe pelvic pain, the cause for which was never discovered. But she had been diagnosed with a depressive disorder and had been treated in mental hospitals. Her autopsy determined that she had no discernable underlying organic disease whatsoever.
Miller was also not dying. Rather, she was disabled by non terminal MS and was depressed because her husband had divorced her and obtained child custody. She was also very concerned about being a burden on her elderly parents.
Kevorkian’s actual motives in pursuing his assisted suicide campaign were grotesquely utilitarian. He believed that nearly anyone who wanted to die should have access to euthanasia, writing for example, that the Jonestown victims should have been allowed to be dispatched by a professional euthanizer. He advocated setting up euthanasia clinics, which he called “obitoria,” at which suicidal people could couple their deaths with organ harvesting and medical experimentation.
Kevorkian acted on these beliefs. After assisting the suicide of a paralyzed ex-policeman named Joseph Tushkowski in June 1998—his last assisted suicide before murdering Thomas Youk—Kevorkian removed the dead man’s kidneys and later held a press conference offering them for transplant, “first come, first served.”
Indeed, the point of his whole campaign was to ultimately fulfill his ghoulish obsession to experiment on the bodies of people he was euthanizing. Here is how he put it on page 214 of his book,Prescription Medicide:
I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my ultimate aim…It is not simply to help suffering or doomed [his term for non ill people who want to die, for example the people at Jonestown, p 198] persons kill themselves–that is merely the first step, an early distasteful professional obligation (now called medicide) that nobody in his or her right mind would savor…What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish–in a word, obitiatry…
So, how did such a clearly disturbed man, whose views were (and still are) so clearly out of the societal mainstream, come to be viewed positively by large segments of media and society?
Consider: He was the guest of honor atTime magazine’s 75th gala anniversary party in 1998. The adulation only grew in the years since his release from prison, with Kevorkian attending gala Hollywood award parties, receiving $50,000 per speech, and becoming the subject of a hagiographic biopic produced by HBO starring A-List star Al Pacino as Kevorkian.
I think there are several factors at work. First, we live in an era that extols and admires the social outlaw. Second, a large segment of our increasingly secularized society disdains moralism, fixed principles of right and wrong involving individual behavior, and dreads anything that smacks of “judgmentalism.” These phenomena seem particularly potent when someone defies values deemed to reflect Judeo/Christian religious dogma, such as the general disfavor of suicide. Third, giving moral support to the suicides of ill and profoundly disabled people who want to die arises naturally in an era in which the emotional narrative and Oprah culture drive public opinion.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “compassion” has become the great justifier for breaking laws and violating social norms. Once Kevorkian stopped talking openly about obitiatry and began proclaiming that he was motivated by his care for suffering patients—even calling himself “Dr. Life” in an interview with Barbara Walters—everything changed. His poll numbers rose substantially, the media fawned, and juries repeatedly refused to convict him for crimes he had clearly committed.
To paraphrase an old rock anthem, nihilism strikes a beat, into your heart it will seep. As the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne wrote in 1994, decrying the strong public support of Robert Latimer, who murdered his 12-year old daughter because she had cerebral palsy, “A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.”
The late Jack Kevorkian intentionally pulled society down that destructive path. Whether we ultimately become a culture out of Kevorkian’s dark imaginings will determine his final historical legacy.