According to recent showbiz news, jailed murderer Jack Kevorkian may soon be the subject of a laudatory movie biopic. (No, it is not intended as a horror movie.) Unfortunately, this seems to be a serious project. The announced director is Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. The screenwriter is Barbara Turner (Pollock). Stars touted as potentially playing the lead include Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day Lewis.
The producer is an unknown named Steve Jones, whose Bee Holder Productions owns the rights to an unpublished biography co-authored by Kevorkian acolyte Neal Nicol a man so devoted to his mentor that he once allowed Kevorkian to infuse him with cadaver blood, resulting in a nasty case of hepatitis. Any thought that the movie might be an accurate portrayal vanished when Jones claimed in a press release that Kevorkian “walks in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.”
Nicol’s unpublished book is entitled You Don’t Know Jack. Here, at least, is a kernel of truth: If those connected with this movie project would only take the time to learn about the real Jack Kevorkian, they would have nothing whatsoever to do with lionizing him.
Let’s start with Kevorkian’s motives. He is ubiquitously portrayed in the media as the doctor who helped terminally ill people end their own lives. No doubt, that is how he will be portrayed in the movie as the iconoclastic visionary whose compassion induced him to test the boundaries of the law to help the actively dying achieve a gentle end.
But this view of Dr. Death who received the moniker when, as a medical student, he haunted hospital wards to watch people die is a blatant, media-driven myth. In reality, Kevorkian’s notorious assisted-suicide campaign, which dominated the headlines throughout most of the 1990s, was driven by a ghoulish desire to conduct human vivisection, or “obitiatry,” as he liked to call it. Yes, you read right. Kevorkian’s primary motive in all that he did was to create the social conditions that would permit him to experiment on the people he was putting to death.
Kevorkian explained this yearning in his 1991 book Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death, where on page 214 he admitted that assisting “suffering or doomed persons kill themselves” was “merely the first step, an early distasteful professional obligation.” Instead of wanting to help the dying, Kevorkian candidly acknowledged, he was actually pursuing his own obsession. “What I find most satisfying,” he wrote, “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.”
Why conduct invasive experiments on people being euthanized? On page 34, he expressed an intense desire to “study all parts of the intact, living brain.” Why? On page 243, Kevorkian explained and it was pure quackery:
If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death even superficially it will have to be through obitiatry…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 possible only through obitiatric research on living human bodies, and most likely by concentrating on the central nervous system…to pinpoint the exact onset of extinction of an unknown cognitive mechanism that energizes life.
Kevorkian’s first targets in his quest to slice and dice people were not the ill, but the condemned. He spent years visiting prisons and corresponding with death-row inmates, seeking permission to conduct “obitiatric research” on those being executed.
Only after Kevorkian was thrown out of every prison he visited did he hit upon another angle. If condemned people were not going to be made available for “unfettered experimentation on human death,” perhaps he could gain access to experiment on sick and disabled people. His front would be assisted suicide. But his goal would remain human vivisection.
Kevorkian appears to have pursued a three-step plan toward achieving his dream: First, popularize assisted suicide and make it seem acceptable; second, give society a utilitarian stake in assisted suicide by using the victims for organ procurement; and finally, gain permission to conduct his death experiments on the sick and disabled people he would be allowed to kill.
Kevorkian started by placing classified ads in newspapers offering “death counseling.” To ensure that he would not be charged with murder, he jerry-rigged a suicide machine that required those whose suicides he was assisting to flip a switch to release deadly potassium chloride or other toxic chemicals into their veins. (When he lost his medical license and access to prescribed drugs, he turned to carbon monoxide as the killing agent.)
It is important to reiterate here that, contrary to the usual media descriptions, most of Kevorkian’s victims were not terminally ill. Of the known 130 or so suicides that Kevorkian facilitated, about 70 percent of the people involved were disabled and depressed, the majority of them women. This is not surprising given Kevorkian’s disdain for disabled people. He once called quadriplegics and paraplegics who were not suicidal “pathological,” and exposed his sympathy for eugenics in a court document, asserting:
The voluntary self-elimination of individual mortally diseased and crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare.
Ironically, it was Kevorkian’s serial assisted suicides of disabled people (to general public applause) that roused the disability-rights community to become the nation’s most effective opponent of legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Not only were most of Kevorkian’s victims not dying, five weren’t even sick. These included:
Marjorie Wantz, age 58, Kevorkian’s second hastened death, whose emotional and mental difficulties once led to her hospitalization. Wantz sought assisted suicide from Kevorkian, complaining of severe pelvic pain. But her autopsy revealed that she was in splendid physical health.
Rebecca Badger, age 39, sought out Kevorkian to help kill her because she believed she had MS. Her autopsy proved that she did not. Further investigations revealed that Badger was a recovering alcoholic who was suffering from depression and was addicted to pain pills.
Judith Curren, age 42, was an obese woman who abused prescription drugs and was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, but her autopsy showed no illness. Shortly before her husband flew her to Kevorkian, she had reported him to the police for violent spouse abuse.
But these facts were barely reported and for years, he got away with it. Emboldened by his successes, feted by a fawning media Andy Rooney declared Kevorkian a “nutty” but “courageous pioneer,” Time invited him to its 75th anniversary party, Larry King offered him repeated softball interviews and convinced after several juries refused to convict him that he was above the law, Kevorkian implemented phase two of his plan. He assisted the suicide of a quadriplegic man named Joseph Tushkowski, age 45, and then removed his kidneys. After the mutilation Kevorkian called a macabre press conference, admitting his part in the deed and offering Tushkowski’s organs to the public: “First come, first served.”
Nothing came of it. The Tushkowski organ harvest created a brief furor, but it soon died down. Kevorkian had become old news. No Michigan prosecutor would file charges against him, even in the Tushkowski case, and stories about his assisted suicides were soon relegated to small mentions deep within the news pages.
Kevorkian was now essentially free to assist suicides to his heart’s content, but that did not make him happy. As he wrote in Prescription Medicide, assisting suicides had never been his goal. If he was ever going to be able to engage in obitiatry, he would have to push the envelope to the point that he could do the actual killing.
Kevorkian decided to graduate from assisted suicide to very public murder. If he could successfully defy the law against active killing, he would be close to achieving his goal. In late 1998, he videoed himself lethally injecting Thomas Youk, age 52, a man dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and took the tape to mega-reporter Mike Wallace, for airing on the always Kevorkian-friendly 60 Minutes.
But this turned out to be a step too far. Prosecuted by the man who, ironically, was elected on a promise to leave Kevorkian alone, the killer was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. The presiding judge told him, “Consider yourself stopped.”
Kevorkian often threatened that if he were ever imprisoned, he would martyr himself for the cause in a hunger-strike protest. Instead, he lives on as a forgotten man, occasionally issuing pathetic requests for clemency.
It would be best for the country if Kevorkian’s imprisonment were the end of this stranger-than-fiction story. But now, clueless Hollywood seems intent on resurrecting the ridiculous myth of Jack the Valiant. How typical. How misguided. How wrong.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His updated Forced Exit: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and the New Duty to Die will be released in February.