Before He Kills Again

Published in The Weekly Standard

IT SEEMS AS IF HE HAS ALWAYS been part of the American cultural landscape, leaving dead bodies at hospital emergency-room doors, wearing Founding Father costumes to court, accusing his opponents of conducting a modern-day Inquisition. But only nine years ago, no one had heard of Jack Kevorkian, when a March 1990 newspaper article described an offer that seemed more like a sick joke: “Applications being accepted. Oppressed by a fatal disease, a severe handicap, a crippling deformity? . . . Show him proper compelling medical evidence that you should die, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian will help you kill yourself, free of charge.” Now, after 130 deaths, one corpse mutilation, four trials, five acquittals, one mistrial, one misdemeanor conviction, two fawning interviews on 60 Minutes, several Larry King appearances, and a feting at the Time magazine 75th anniversary party, we know that Jack Kevorkian may be sick, but he is certainly no joke.

Kevorkian is about to stand trial again, this time for murder. The trial is scheduled to begin on March 22 in Oakland County, Mich. The evidence is clear and uncontested. Last November 22, tens of millions of people watched him kill Thomas Youk, age 52, afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), on 60 Minutes. Kevorkian admits doing the deed. The law against such euthanasia is unequivocal throughout the country. Not even Oregon, which has legalized physician-assisted suicide, permits active killing. Yet, the question lingers in the air, unanswerable: Will the jury convict?

Why has Kevorkian thrived? Blame the times in which we live. His is the perfect story for our post-modern age, in which facts matter less than feelings, truth less than myth. The more he has helped people die, the less the media have dwelled on Kevorkian’s lack of medical training (a pathologist, he hasn’t treated a living patient since the 1950s), his megalomania, or his bigotry against disabled people. Worse, Kevorkian’s victims quickly became pseudo-people, mere statistics in a rising count. Andy Rooney summarized the national attitude when he declared Kevorkian a “nutty” but “courageous pioneer,” willing to sacrifice his own welfare toward the noble goal of relieving the terminally ill of their suffering.

But that isn’t the real Jack Kevorkian. Mercy has never been his motive. None of his victims was on the verge of death or in unremitting pain when Kevorkian helped administer lethal chemicals. Eighty percent of the people he helped kill were not terminally ill. Most were disabled and depressed. Medical science could have brought some measure of relief to virtually every one of them.

Several of the people whose deaths he facilitated had no physical disease determinable by autopsy. Marjorie Wantz, age 58, who died in 1991, complained of unremitting pelvic pain. The medical examiner could find no organic cause. It is known that Wantz was emotionally disturbed and had been in mental hospitals. In 1996, Rebecca Badger, age 39, sought out Kevorkian to kill her because she believed she had multiple sclerosis. She didn’t. Judith Curren, age 42, was an obese woman who abused prescription drugs and was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, but her autopsy found no illness. Shortly before her husband flew with her to Kevorkian, she had reported him to the police for violent spousal abuse. Martha Wichorek, age 82, admitted in her suicide note that she wasn’t ill.

At least two of Kevorkian’s victims, probably more, were not mentally competent when they died. Franz-Johann Long, age 53, believed he was a KGB agent. Kevorkian’s lawyer claimed Long had terminal cancer, but the autopsy showed only microscopic signs of the disease. Mary Judith Kanner, age 67, had advanced Huntington’s disease, a terminal condition marked by progressive dementia. The family of Deborah Sickels, who had MS, told the press she wasn’t competent and had a long history of emotional instability. Kevorkian’s first victim, Janet Adkins, had early Alzheimer’s disease which had already affected her cognitive abilities.

It is Kevorkian’s longstanding obsession with death that has carried him — and us — to this point. This fixation is what led him, as a young man, to become a pathologist. It is the reason for the infamous moniker “Dr. Death” that Kevorkian received in his medical school days, when he haunted hospital wards staring into the eyes of dying patients and taking pictures of people as they expired. He once gave a man hepatitis by transfusing him with cadaver blood.

Mercy has never been Kevorkian’s purpose. License to experiment on the people he is killing before they are dead is what he really wants. He calls this proposed human vivi-section “obitiatry.” “If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death,” he wrote in his autobiography, Prescription Medicide, published in 1991, it will “of necessity require insight into the nature of the unique awareness of consciousness that characterizes cognitive human life. That is possible only through obiatric research on living human bodies, and most likely concentrating on the central nervous system.”

Long before he placed his first newspaper ad offering “death with dignity,” Kevorkian spent many years communicating with death row inmates asking if they would agree to be experimented on at their executions. Some actually said yes. These efforts prove that compassion is not Kevorkian’s motivation, but simply the cover story he and his lawyers have concocted for public consumption. Indeed, Kevorkian set his sights on dying and disabled people only after state officials convinced him that they would never permit him to participate in executions.

Kevorkian actually disdains the people he helps kill. He has said that paraplegics and quadriplegics who are not suicidal are “pathological.” In one of his court appearances in the early 1990s, he wrote in a court document, “The voluntary self-elimination of individual and mortally diseased or crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare.” His Nazi-like thinking should have made Kevorkian a pariah, but it didn’t. Disability-rights activists looked on in horror as people shrugged off Kevorkian’s actual words and embraced the compassion myth. Deeply alarmed at his favorable poll numbers, they began to organize against Kevorkian and the entire assisted-suicide movement. Disabled people are now among the most vigorous opponents of the culture of death.

Kevorkian’s unexpected success seems to have triggered in him a new obsession: being a news celebrity. But making news on a continuing basis isn’t easy. His assisted suicides soon became old hat, and Kevorkian found himself relegated to the back pages. What’s a death doctor to do when he kills and kills and kills again, to a general shrug? Up the ante.

In 1997, according to journalist and Kevorkian biographer Michael Betzold, Kevorkian came close to carrying out a sick publicity stunt that would have made him the talk of the world. He and his acolyte Janet Good (whose suicide he would later assist) learned of a teenager awaiting a liver transplant at a local hospital. They hatched a scheme to facilitate the death of a Chicago man in the hospital parking lot. Then, with news cameras rolling, they intended to storm inside the hospital with the fresh corpse and offer the liver for transplantation. The plan was canceled only after the teenager obtained an organ through legitimate channels.

The next year, Kevorkian threatened to begin harvesting his victims’ organs, promising to hold a news conference with kidneys in jars by his side. A few months later he made headlines when he held a news conference to announce that he had assisted the suicide of a 45-year-old quadriplegic man named Joseph Tushkowski and then removed the man’s kidneys, which he offered to the public “first come, first served.” When there were no takers, Kevorkian had the kidneys cremated.

The story soon died and Michigan voters rejected an assisted-suicide legalization initiative by 71-29 percent. People wondered whether Kevorkian would respond. He did, loudly. His next victim was Thomas Youk, and his publicity vehicle was 60 Minutes.

So now, in the tradition of O.J. and impeachment, the nation faces its next made-for-television-talking-heads-trial/circus. But this time, there won’t be the poetic brilliance of a Johnnie Cochran or the gruff eloquence of a Charles Ruff riding to the defendant’s rescue. As if the public affairs of this country weren’t already weird enough, accused murderer Jack Kevorkian plans to represent himself at the upcoming trial. Fasten your seat belt, Geraldo, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.