The Serial Killer as Folk Hero

Originally published at The Weekly Standard

THE BODY OF HOMICIDE VICTIM Joseph Tushkowski underwent “a bizarre mutilation,” proclaimed Oakland County (Mich.) medical examiner L.J. Dragovic in mid-June. According to the autopsy findings, the mutilator, after killing Tushkowski with a lethal injection, crudely ripped out his kidneys. He didn’t even bother to remove the dead man’s clothes, but simply lifted up the sweater, did his dirty work, and tied off the blood vessels with twine.

This is not a bizarre plot twist from the new X-Files movie. The despicable and gruesome act was committed by a team that included that ghoulish poster boy for “assisted suicide,” Jack Kevorkian. He announced the deed proudly in a news conference earlier this month, during which he and his lawyer offered Tushkowski’s organs for transplant, “first come, first served.” There were no takers.

No one who has followed Kevorkian’s eight-year killing spree can be shocked at this latest outrage. In his 1991 book Prescription: Medicide and other writings Kevorkian long ago alerted the world that he would take human organs from his victims. Indeed, just a few months ago, he promised to hold a press conference with jars containing human organs at his side.

Most of this hasn’t penetrated into the public’s consciousness. Perhaps some evil acts are too grotesque to comprehend. Or perhaps, rather than accept the harsh truth — which would require an end to apathy and a rejection of assisted-suicide theory — it has been easier for the public to swallow the assertion of Kevorkian’s minister of propaganda, lawyer Geoffrey Feiger, that Kevorkian’s only aim is to relieve human suffering. But that isn’t his aim at all. Jack Kevorkian is in this for his own twisted purposes — and his writings, public statements, and actions prove it.

Kevorkian has embarked on a three-pronged campaign to destroy traditional American medical ethics, a campaign that also gives him free rein to indulge his twisted obsessions. The first phase was to make “assisted suicide” seem routine and even banal, not so much to relieve suffering (which he called “an early distasteful professional obligation”) as to make “possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial medical acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish.” Phase Two, which he has now entered, is to harvest organs from his dead victims and offer them for use in transplants. This is intended to make the voluntary killing of despairing disabled and sick people seem beneficial to society. The third and final phase: Use assisted-suicide victims as experimental “subjects” before they die — in other words, human vivisection.

Phase One of Kevorkian’s quest succeeded beyond even his own wild expectations. Who would have believed in 1990, when Kevorkian committed his first assisted suicide, that he would go on to “assist” more than 100 victims without significant legal consequence, and be viewed by a bemused public as some village crank? It doesn’t seem to have mattered to the jurors who have helped him escape prosecution — or to the part of the public that sees him as a social reformer — that approximately 80 percent of Kevorkian’s victims were not terminally ill. Most of them have been people with disabilities, primarily multiple sclerosis but also arthritis and spinal-cord injury. Few care that two of the victims were not mentally competent, including a man who believed he was a KGB agent and a woman with late-stage Huntington’s disease. Another six of Kevorkian’s victims had no identifiable illness upon autopsy, including an 82-year-old woman who admitted in her suicide note that she just wanted to die. In Oakland County, Kevorkian’s base of operations, prosecutor David Gorcyca won office in 1996 after promising to leave the one-time doctor alone.

Now a law unto himself, Kevorkian has opened his second phase, in which he intends to use disabled human beings as organ farms. There is purpose behind this madness. Kevorkian believes a disabled person who is not in suicidal despair to be “pathological.” In an August 1990 court statement, Kevorkian wrote that “the voluntary self-elimination of individual and mortally diseased or crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare.” He views the organs of the disabled as having greater value than disabled people themselves. It is thus no coincidence that Tushkowski, Kevorkian’s first “organ donor,” was disabled with a spinal injury.

If Michigan law enforcement and public opinion swallow Phase Two — as seems likely, considering the blase public reaction to Tushkowski’s mutilation, the deafening silence about it from most of Michigan’s and the nation’s political leaders, and the shrug of the shoulders by prosecutor Gorcyca — look for Kevorkian to quickly implement Phase Three, “unfettered experimentation on human death.”

In Prescription: Medicide, Kevorkian explicitly described his future plans. “Knowledge about the essence of human death,” he wrote, “will of necessity require insight into the nature of the unique awareness . . . that characterizes cognitive human life. That is possible only through . . . research on living human bodies, and most likely by concentrating on the central nervous system.” There is no reason to believe Kevorkian won’t act on his desire to cut up people while they are still alive, just as he has acted on the first two phases of his campaign, which he also wrote about explicitly and in detail long before actually putting theory into practice.

Jack Kevorkian is a quack, a ghoul, and a fiend. He is a quack because, though once trained as a pathologist, he has no training or expertise in diagnosing or treating depression, and he has not treated a living patient, at least not one who survived his “treatment,” since his residency and military service in the 1950s. (His license to practice medicine was lifted in 1991.) Yet he purports to advise despairing sick and disabled people about their medical prognoses. He is a ghoul because he is obsessed utterly with death. Indeed, his “Dr. Death” moniker dates back to his medical-school days, when he would haunt hospital wards at night, staring into dying people’s eyes. He is a fiend because his fondest dream is to slice open living people. He may also be the world’s most clever serial killer, as one media observer once put it, since his victims come to him.

The ugliest truth in the Kevorkian story, though, is not about him but about us. In a decent and moral country, Kevorkian would long ago have been shunned as a pariah and jailed or forcibly confined to a mental institution. Instead, Jack Kevorkian has become the most unlikely folk hero in the United States. Earlier this year, he was feted at Time magazine’s 75th-anniversary gala, where he was praised by attending celebrities like actor Tom Cruise, who rushed up to shake his hand. Andy Rooney interviewed him on 60 Minutes and proclaimed him a “courageous pioneer.” Larry King and Charles Grodin are admirers. Geoffrey Feiger, his longtime lawyer and confidant, has a good chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan.

The ultimate horror of Jack Kevorkian lies not in the hollowed-out body of his latest victim, but in the hollowness he has exposed in the society that tolerates — and even celebrates — his increasingly gruesome killing spree.

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.