The sad life of ‘Doctor Death’

The assisted suicide entrepreneur may be dead, but the misanthropic culture on which he thrived survives him.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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Jack Kevorkian, America’s outspoken, cardigan-wearing retired pathologist who rose to fame as Dr Death, has died peacefully – and without assistance. Kevorkian was responsible for the deaths of at least 130 people who requested that he help them to die. During the years of Kevorkian’s activism, the states of Oregon, Washington and Montana all legalised assisted dying. Like most celebrity endorsers or campaigners for the right to assisted suicide, he chose to live life to the end.

To what extent was Kevorkian responsible for the changes in assisted-dying law? Kevorkian himself would have revelled in the thought that he sparked a revolution with his bold actions, which began in 1990 when 54-year-old Janet Adkins, in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease, pressed a red button in the back of Kevorkian’s rusting 1968 VW van, releasing potassium chloride which stopped her heart. Thus was born the ‘Mercitron’, Kevorkian’s suicide machine, which operated alongside Kevorkian’s publicity machine. But Kevorkian, a bizarre character, did not singlehandedly make euthanasia respectable – rather he pushed at an open door.

Born on 26 May 1928 to Armenian immigrants, Kevorkian led an itinerant and unsuccessful career as a pathologist. Employed in a hospital as a pathologist in the 1950s, he conducted what nurses called ‘creepy’ experiments, photographing the eyes of dying patients. He later failed to interest the US army in his plan to harvest the blood of cadavers in the late 1950s. It was here, according to his biographers Neal Nicol and Harry Wylie, that he was first referred to as Dr Death. He proposed to give murderers condemned to die the option of being anaesthetised so that their organs might be harvested, as well as suggesting a scheme to use the blood of cadavers for battlefield transfusions. In 1976, bored with medicine, he moved to Long Beach, California, where he spent 12 years painting and writing, producing an unsuccessful film about Handel’s ‘Messiah’, and supporting himself with part-time pathology positions at two hospitals. By 1982 he had moved to Michigan, where he lived off his savings and couldn’t even get a job as a paramedic.

After limited success in trying to get the California Legislature to reconsider his organ-donation plan, he became inspired after a trip to Holland in 1987. He tried to advertise his ‘Mercitron’ services in 1988 and the story was picked up by Newsweek, where Janet Adkins saw it. Following Adkins’ death, Kevorkian called the police and was briefly arrested. In an interview for the New York Times, Kevorkian announced to the world his intention to continue to offer assisted suicides.

Many other patients, or victims depending on how you see it, stepped forward to be euthanised by Kevorkian. They were mostly women, and not all of them were suffering from either debilitating or terminal illnesses. A report noted that ‘at least 60 per cent of Kevorkian’s suicide patients were not terminal. At least 17 could have lived indefinitely [sic] and, in 13 cases, the people had no complaints of pain.’

After a number of unsuccessful prosecutions, Kevorkian was finally imprisoned for 10 to 25 years for administering a fatal injection to 52-year-old Thomas Youk, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In a manner which characterised his way of operating, Kevorkian filmed the death and sent it to the US news programme, 60 Minutes.

Kevorkian had his champions – not least himself. In fact, it was difficult to top Kevorkian’s own descriptions of himself: he compared himself to Galileo, Thoreau and Nelson Mandela. Al Pacino, who starred in an Emmy-winning movie biopic about Kevorkian called You Don’t Know Jack, congratulated him for his passion and commitment to the cause.

His critics were more vociferous and were also given material to work with by Kevorkian himself. Many commented that Kevorkian’s interest in death was less than healthy. He painted gruesome pictures, described by Vanity Fair writer Jack Lessenberry as consisting of ‘such merry scenes as a child eating the flesh off a decomposing corpse and Santa crushing a baby in a manger’. He was also a jazz musician and composer, producing a CD with the Morpheus Quartet with a track he composed called, The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life.

Besides those who opposed legalising assisted dying, Kevorkian had numerous critics from within the pro-assisted dying movement. Derek Humphry, author of the bestselling non-fiction title Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, who met Kevorkian in 1988 and rejected his offer to set up an illegal ‘suicide clinic’ for the terminally ill in Los Angeles, described him to The Times (London) in 1990 as a ‘zealot’ and a ‘strange bird’.

Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post, noted: ‘Even to those, such as myself, who are inclined to support the principle of a right-to-die, and if necessary to be assisted in committing suicide, Kevorkian was a hard man to like. Through his own self-aggrandising acts, he made it harder than it had to be to argue that for some patients, a clean, painless death is truly the greatest mercy that can be offered.’

Policy-oriented groups, such as Compassion and Choices, worked to distinguish themselves from the Kevorkian spectacle. One briefing in 1999 was titled: ‘Jack Kevorkian and Physician-Assisted Dying: Not One and the Same.’ Ludovic Kennedy, a prominent campaigner for assisted dying, could not help observing: ‘I wish another than he had invented the “Mercitron”.’

But Kevorkian’s advocates also gained from the notorious acts performed by the wayward pathologist. ‘Disagreement has its uses’, agreed Scott Blaine Swenson, who was the executive director of the Death With Dignity National Centre from 2001 to 2005. According to Swenson, Kevorkian was ‘the perfect foil’ for the centrist movement that was promoting policy change.

Kevorkian’s antics were strategically used to attract attention to the issue while policy-oriented straight men lobbied as the ‘reasonable’ centre. Just as Malcolm X was promoted as the ‘hate that hate produced’ to scare liberals into more active support of Martin Luther King, so Kevorkian was wheeled out by assisted dying advocates with suitably disapproving glances in an effort to regulate and control the process. If anything, Kevorkian ensured a consensus on the importance of necessary ‘safeguards’ could be reached. Indeed, his renegade actions even encouraged some opponents of change in the law towards a more regulated dying processes.

But ultimately Kevorkian, with his eye for publicity, simply framed his own macabre interest in death within society’s growing inability to value human life. It is likely the world would have ignored him – as it did his baby-eating-corpse ‘art’ – without a more general societal trend towards misanthropy. Indeed, more significant than Kevorkian’s actions was the inability of the authorities to prosecute him successfully – even despite the fact that Kevorkian once chose to represent himself in court and then appeal on the basis that he had incompetent representation – until he was shown committing the act of murder on television.

Kevorkian’s misanthropy fits in snugly alongside the efforts of environmentalists pointing to human existence as the real problem behind climate change; of animal rights advocates who seek to level human and animal lives; and of modern-day Malthusians who argue that Earth is dangerously overpopulated. Given how mainstream such attitudes are becoming, it is understandable that some juries were confused when deciding how to respond to Kevorkian’s attempts to cut short the lives of people who felt them to be worthless.

According to a Gallup survey conducted last month, the single most polarising issue in the United States is doctor-assisted suicide, the issue symbolised by Kevorkian. Nearly half of Americans say it is morally acceptable, while the other half say it is morally wrong. This confusion reflects a more general confusion in society about what is morally acceptable and what is not. The question for many is whether to approve of the act because it is consensual, or whether to disapprove because it is potentially harmful to others. Given such a continuing maelstrom, it’s no surprise that operators such as Kevorkian are able to gain a purchase.

Kevorkian’s final book, When the People Bubble POPs, a bizarre collection of already published evidence alongside babbling limericks, confirms both his bizarre and publicity-seeking nature and, more importantly, that he followed trends rather than setting them. As Kevorkian said, parroting many a deep-green environmentalist, the book looks at population not from the human aspect, but ‘from nature’s aspect. That’s what counts – nature – not us…’

Kevorkian’s legacy is that he managed to tap into a rich vein of misanthropy in contemporary society. Unfortunately, until we affirm to ourselves that the existence of human life has always improved the situation in which it occurs – even in so-called hopeless situations – then his passing will simply mean that some other cultural entrepreneur will appear to exploit the space left by him.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

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Topics Politics


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