A Demented Doctor Of Death

This column was written by Wesley J. Smith.

Jack Kevorkian was released from prison Friday. Don't expect Dr. Death to keep a low profile. He is already scheduled to appear on 60 Minutes, where he will be interviewed by euthanasia proponent Mike Wallace. After that, the rest of the media is likely to extravagantly tout Kevorkian as the compassionate, if eccentric, retired doctor who helped desperate, terminally ill people put themselves out of their misery.

In actuality, most of Kevorkian's "patients" were not terminally ill, but disabled and depressed. Several weren't even sick, according to their autopsies. Moreover, Kevorkian never attempted to treat any of the 130 or so persons who traveled to Michigan to be hooked up to his suicide machines to die either by drug overdose or carbon monoxide poisoning.

And as for compassion — forget about it. Kevorkian was never in the killing business to alleviate unbearable suffering. Indeed, over the course of decades he repeatedly explained his ultimate goals in professional journals and in his 1991 book, Prescription Medicide. As Jack Kevorkian articulately expresses it himself, compassion had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Kevorkian's adulthood obsession has been to perform live human experimentation on people he was killing. His first targets were condemned prisoners. Indeed, as far back as 1959, Kevorkian wrote in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminal Political Science:

Capital punishment as it exists today offers a golden opportunity to break… limits [on human experimentation] by introducing into the situation an involuntary factor without destroying the necessary safeguard of consent. I propose that a prisoner condemned to death by due process of law be allowed to submit, by his own free choice, to medical experimentation under complete anesthesia (at the time appointed for administering the penalty) as a form of execution in lieu of conventional methods.
Twenty-five years later, Kevorkian continued advocating experimenting on condemned prisoners, which, in light of the advances in organ transplant medicine, he began to couple with calls to use executed prisoners as organ donors. In the October 1984 edition of MD, Kevorkian published "Dr. Guillotine's Example," in which he asserted:
Of course, capital punishment has always been rationalized as being "retribution" — allowing the condemned to "pay" with their lives. What nonsense! Payment means transfer of value. With execution there is no such thing; there is only total loss — and, of course, vengeance.

That no longer need be true. The fortuitous convergence of lethal injection and of our incredible success with organ transplantation promises to validate at least the erstwhile repayment. Many of the more than 1,200 men and women now crowding our states' death rows are eager to suffer more meaningful death by donating vital organs to dying patients…Here finally, we have the opportunity to extract true payment — literal transfer of life from the condemned to the dying.

Meanwhile, Kevorkian was still obsessing about human experimentation. Writing in 1985 in the Journal of the National Medical Association, Kevorkian sought to wiggle out of the Nuremberg Code's ethical rules for human experimentation, writing:
Postwar analysis of Nazi experimentation on human beings seems to have been so excruciating that it blinded the civilized world to a very important point in the formulation of the Nuremberg Code. Nowhere in the code is there any reference to experimentation (under anesthesia) on those who chose and desire it as an act of atonement when condemned to death by due process of peacetime jurisprudence…In the United States where death rows are once again becoming over populated, all condemned persons should be allowed to choose to submit to experimentation, or to organ donation, under strictly controlled anesthesia before ultimate death by lethal thiopental injection.
By 1986, Kevorkian had expanded his advocacy for human experimentation beyond the condemned to people with serious medical problems, disabilities, and even the depressed. Thus, writing in a 1986 edition of Medicine and Law, Kevorkian asserted:
The so-called Nuremberg Code and all its derivatives completely ignore the extraordinary opportunities for terminal experimentation on humans facing imminent and inevitable death...[including] the extraction of medical benefit from the process of judicial execution from those dying of irremediable illness or trauma and from suicide mandated by inflexible religious or philosophical principles or by irrevocable personal choice. Other potential subjects include comatose, brain dead, or totally incapacitated individuals as well as live fetuses in or out of the womb.
Toward gaining license to personally experiment on living human bodies, as he described in Prescription Medicide, Kevorkian traveled the country visiting prisons, seeking access to condemned prisoners upon whom he wanted license to practice what he now called "obitiatry," by which he meant human experimentation coupled with termination of the subject's life. "No serious experiment on an anesthetized condemned person can be too 'silly' or 'impractical,'" he wrote on page 114. Nor did he believe that human experimentation ought to be limited to doctors, but could include "paraprofessionals" and "qualified lay individuals." His personal desire, as stated on page 34, was to "study all parts of the living brain" (Kevorkian's emphasis).
Thwarted by the authorities from experimenting on prisoners being executed, and rejected by organ transplant programs from coupling execution with organ procurement, Kevorkian had an inspiration: "I conceived the idea," he explained on page 189, "of expanding my death row proposal to include experimentation on willing patients who opt for euthanasia." He traveled to the Netherlands to explore the idea with Dutch proponents of euthanasia. Upon his return, "inspired by my visit to the Netherlands, I decided to take the risky step of assisting terminal patients in committing suicide." He began advertising for suicide clients in June 1987.

Thus Kevorkian's entire assisted-suicide campaign was intended to permit him to engage in "obitiatry." Toward this end, he proposed several categories of people who would qualify for killing/experimentation, which he detailed in pages 196-203:

  • "Optional assisted suicide," which he explained included "individuals, sometimes in good physical and mental health, who choose to be killed by another":
    The compelling factors may be physical (end stage of incurable disease, crippling deformity, or severe trauma), mental (intense anxiety or psychic torture inflicted by self or others), or doxastic (religious or philosophical tenets or inflexible personal convictions). Also in this group would be the forebears of Christianity in ancient Rome, whose "choice" to be killed by hungry lions in the Coliseum was preferable to the alternative "choice" of renouncing their faith (spiritual death).
  • "Obligatory Suicide," a category comprised of "those irrevocably condemned to kill themselves," such as "the Japanese ritual of hara-kiri" required by "a devout Shintoist guilty of intolerable sin [to] gain access to the next life."
  • "Optional Suicide," which differed from optional assisted suicide in that these would-be obitiatric subjects "are in no way afflicted by illness but who have arbitrarily and irrevocably decided that they must die."
  • "Suicide by Proxy," encompassing "the killing by the decision and action of another, of fetuses, infants, minor children, and every human being incapable of giving direct and informed consent."

Kevorkian saw those in each of the above categories as not only killable, but also usable for organ procurement and human experimentation. "I believe that death in every category discussed can be merciful," he wrote, "and at the same time yield something of real value to the suffering humanity left behind." Moreover, he believed that human experimentation should supplant animal research, writing on page 211 that we should "never do on any animal anything aimed solely or primarily for human benefit, and for the performance of which live human subjects are available under ethically unassailable circumstances."

Kevorkian admitted clearly that he was not in the assisted-suicide project for the compassion. Rather, as he wrote on page 214:

I feel it is only decent and fair to explain my ultimate aim…. It is not simply to help suffering and doomed 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 could savor. [W]hat 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.
What kind of experiments? Pure quackery:
If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death — even superficially — it will have to be through obitiatry. Research using cultured cells and tissues and live animals may yield objective biological data, and eventually perhaps even some clues about the essence of mere vitality or existence. But knowledge about the essence of human death will of necessity require insight into the nature of the unique awareness of or consciousness that characterizes cognitive human life. That is possible only through obitiatric research on living human bodies, and most likely centering on the nervous system...on anesthetized subjects [to] pinpoint the exact onset of extinction of an unknown cognitive mechanism that energizes life.
Don't expect any of these disturbing issues to be raised by Mike Wallace or Kevorkian's other interlocutors. The media want to tell a fairy tale of Jack the Martyr jailed for pursuing the enlightened cause of compassion and "death with dignity." But the truly interesting story that will go mostly unwritten is how a clearly twisted personality — driven to his assisted suicide campaign by an obsession with human vivisection and a desire to exploit the weak and desperate for crass utilitarian purposes — became, for a time, the most famous and popular doctor in the world.
By Wesley J. Smith
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online