He’s back. Jack Kevorkian is again on the front pages above the fold. And he’s making the rounds of interviews. He might think he has died and gone to heaven—except he doesn’t believe in heaven. After death, he has said, “you stink and rot.”
With the release of the HBO movie, “You Don’t Know Jack,” millions of people will get a glimpse of Jack Kevorkian as a physician who helped desperately ill people die using his “Mercy Machine.” Yet, the Jack that most people haven’t heard of is far from a benevolent character.
I first met Jack via telephone in 1989 when we debated on a Cincinnati radio program. At that time he was searching for someone on whom he could test what he then called his “self-execution machine.” The ideal candidate, he explained, could be someone with multiple sclerosis, severe arthritis, or a terminal illness. It wasn’t until after his first victim died that he began to use more media-friendly labels for his gadget, like “mercitron” or “mercy machine.”
The media portrayed him as a retired pathologist. But Jack wasn’t retired, he was unemployed. With the exception of his residency and his military service in the 1950s, he had no clinical experience with live patients. He was even turned down for a job as a paramedic in 1989.
He did write many papers, though, trying to establish a new specialty called “obitiatry,” with his ultimate aim being an “auction market” using organs taken from “subjects” who were “hopelessly crippled by arthritis or malformations.” What a guy.
As for compassion, decide for yourself. In 1986, he described experimentation in which “subjects,” including infants, children and the mentally incompetent, would be used for experiments “of any kind or complexity.” Then, if the subject’s body was still alive after experimentation, “death may be induced” by such means as “removal of organs for transplantation” or “a lethal dose of a new or untested drug to be administered by an official executioner.” Four years later, he penned a statement explaining 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.”
Yet, public perception of Kevorkian as a kindly doctor who eased the suffering of terminally ill patients remains. This, despite the fact that many among his 130 known victims were not “terminally ill.” In fact, autopsies found that some had no serious physical maladies at all.
Jack’s gruesome ideas and bizarre actions didn’t dampen the praise from the so-called right-to-die movement. In 1999, the head of the Hemlock Society (now known as Compassion & Choices) explained that Kevorkian had been “practicing what we preached.” Even today, another Hemlock spin-off called the Final Exit Network is urging its members to watch “You Don’t Know Jack” which, it says, has put the right to die in the forefront again.
It remains highly doubtful, however, that those who do watch the HBO flick will know the Real Jack Kevorkian.
Rita L. Marker is an attorney and executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.