Jack Kevorkian: Pariah or Prophet?

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on June 9, 2011

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

The notorious euthanasia/assisted suicide advocate, Jack Kevorkian, died naturally and peacefully in his hospital bed last week at the age of 83, music playing at his bedside. As many have noted, his death had a certain irony. Despite being in declining health, he never took the out that he offered to other people.

Kevorkian stridently advocated policies and views that are beyond anathema to everything for which the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network stands. He acted lethally on these beliefs, assisting the suicides of about 130 people and murdering Thomas Youk by a lethal injection, a crime for which he served nearly 10 years in prison. The question thus arises: What can one say after such a person’s passing? It seems to me that we should hope he finds the ultimate forgiveness we all need and the eternal peace for which many hope and pray.

But that doesn’t mean we cannot also look at what he did—and the kind of society he sought to forge—with a clear and unsentimental eye. And this is the hard truth: Kevorkian was not motivated by a tender heart offering death only to those for whom it offered the only respite. Rather, he was a harsh utilitarian and nihilistic radical individualist who believed in using mercy killing for the benefit of greater society.

This isn’t my interpretation. It isn’t hyperbole. Nor am I putting words in the late assisted suicide advocate’s mouth. Rather, he expressed his beliefs and goals clearly and without equivocation.

  • Kevorkian was a dark misanthrope: Kevorkian was a hard-shell atheist who saw no ultimate value in human life. When asked by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta to describe the worst day of his life, Kevorkian replied, “The moment I was born.” His existential pain was reflected in his art. A talented painter, he used his gift to depict horrible nightmare scenarios, even going so far as to mix human blood into his artistic medium.

  • Kevorkian Believed in Death-on-Demand: Kevorkian never advocated limiting assisted suicide/euthanasia to the terminally ill, or even the ill or disabled. Indeed, as a radical individualist, he believed that each of us essentially has a right to death on demand. In this regard, writing in his 1991 book Prescription Medicide, he bizarrely asserted that the victims of Jonestown should have had access to euthanasia so that they could have experienced calmer and more peaceful deaths:

    It ranks as one of the most bizarre episodes of obligatory suicide in modern times: the mass death by cyanide of almost one thousand fanatic adherents of the Jim Jones religious cult in Guyana in 1978. Diehard critics of euthanasia would probably argue that the awful scene of many contorted bodies of men, women, and children scattered willy-nilly over the shrubby fields was less grotesque than would be the imagined scene of the same bodies handled in an individual and respectfully proper way after an ever more serene death in an orderly clinical setting.

  • Kevorkian Wanted to Tie in Organ Harvesting with Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide: Kevorkian believed that euthanasia clinics should be established that would join mercy killing with organ harvesting. He called these proposed clinics “obitoria.” Writing in Prescription Medicide, he advocated:

    . . . the establishment of professionally staffed and well equipped “suicide centers” for the sole purpose of assuring a humane and painless death for all who need and desire it. The time has come to . . . make the quantum leap of supplementing merciful killing with the enormously positive benefit of experimentation and organ donation.

    He actually acted on this desire, taking the kidneys from the body of Joseph Tushkowski in 1998 and offering them at a press conference, “first come, first served.”

  • Kevorkian Was Obsessed With Conducting Medical Experiments on People He Was Euthanizing: From page 214 of 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] 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 . . .

    It is worth noting that before he turned his attention to assisted suicide, Kevorkian toured the nation’s prisons seeking permission to experiment on condemned prisoners during their executions. It was only when he became convinced it was not to be that he decided to use the sick and disabled to gain access to the living bodies upon which he yearned to experiment.

Kevorkian’s activism is all in the rearview mirror now, of course. But a new worry arises. Was Kevorkian as much prophet as he was nihilistic advocate?

The signs are not good. Consider: Switzerland and the Netherlands permit assisted suicide/euthanasia for those with mental illnesses. Indeed, several suicide clinics have been established in Switzerland, where people from all over the world go to be made dead. In Belgium, doctors have begun joining euthanasia to organ harvesting. In the USA, Final Exit Network activists travel to the homes of suicidal people “counseling” them on how to kill themselves using a plastic bag and helium.

Perhaps most alarmingly, media and popular culture ubiquitously extol assisted suicide as a compassionate choice, and indeed, have already revised history to transform the macabre Kevorkian into an enlightened prophet of a more compassionate culture. This is how Barbara Walters put it in the wake of his death on the ABC Nightly News:

What he hoped his legacy would be, the ‘Dr. Life’ would be, is that certain hospitals would have areas with the right doctors, with the psychiatrists, knowing that there were patients for whom there was no hope, that there would then be assisted suicide, but that it would be legitimate and that it would be compassionate. That is what he wanted and he was willing to go to jail to make that happen.

As we have seen, that was never true. My great fear is that a time may come when people will not be able to tell the difference between the values Kevorkian actually advocated and those that control our future society.

 
CBC special consultant Wesley J. Smith is also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a lawyer for the Patients Rights Council.

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