Dr. Death gets out of prison

When Jack Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999, he told me he was happy about it. "Now I've got them right where I want them," he said. He thought there would be an enormous public outcry against his jailing.

Outraged humanity would force his release, he believed, and that would be the end of anybody interfering with his crusade to help suffering people end what Geoffrey Fieger always called "their increasingly intolerable existence."

But as Kevo was led away, John Skrzynski, the assistant prosecutor who had finally defeated him, told me quietly, "Prisoners don't usually get to hold press conferences." The prosecutor grasped what Dr. Death did not.

When you are out of sight in today's media world, you are out of mind. What the good doctor didn't know was that he had about used up his fame.

Jack Kevorkian was once nearly the most famous personality in America, bursting on the scene June 4, 1990, when he helped an Oregon housewife in the early stages of Alzheimer's kill herself in his rusty Volkswagen van.

Within weeks, he hooked up with Geoffrey Fieger, the world's most flamboyant lawyer. Other suicides and trial after trial after trial followed. Always they won. Within six years, Keovrkian had won, completely.

Nationally, the so-called "right-to die" issue was dominating discussion. Whipped and defeated, local prosecutors announced they would no longer charge him. Assisted suicide, at least as practiced by Jack Kevorkian, M.D. (license suspended, but hey), was de facto legal in metropolitan Detroit.

Nobody in the media, I should say, knew him as well as I did. I covered all the trials, for media from British television to Vanity Fair to The New York Times. I never concealed that I thought then — and think now — that this is a right that everyone should have, and that he was a man of courage and conviction.

For this I was, naturally, attacked in the media, including once in The New Republic by a nasty competitor, a man who was struggling with Catholic guilt and his own cousin's Kevorkian suicide. Not to mention that he was deeply upset that Kevorkian would no longer talk to him after the prudish ghoul learned the reporter had been arrested on, ahem, a morals charge.

And naturally, I was at the same time regularly screamed at by the ill-tempered doctor and his mild and passive lawyer when I pointed out his contradictions and increasingly bizarre behavior.

In the end, oddly, I was a minor instrument of the good doctor's own demise. Not satisfied with success, Kevo committed euthanasia, videotaped it, and came to me, saying he wanted a national audience to take the debate to the next level. I knew Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, and suggested he give the tape to him, since the show had high ratings and high credibility. They showed it; Kevorkian forced the prosecutors to charge him, and then for good measure fired Fieger, just to make sure he didn't get in the way of his own self-destruction.

The jury quickly convicted him; the judge, angry at what she perceived as Kevorkian's mocking contempt for the rule of law, threw the book at him, and the story seemed to have run its course. Long before his jailing, the public had wearied of assisted suicide. Lowbrow attention had shifted to the trailer-park-style sexual dalliances that nearly brought down a president.

Though you could never rule out a sequel, Kevorkian's jailing seemed like the logical end of some made-for-TV movie. People quickly forgot him; popular culture moved on. Then came Sept. 11, and suddenly suicide, by whatever name and for whatever reason, didn't seem so alluring anymore.

Now, finally, the prison authorities have announced that they will let him out when he is eligible for parole in June. When that happened last week, someone asked me, with mild astonishment, if he were really still alive.

According to his current lawyer, Mayer Morgenroth, Kevorkian today is old, infirm and very sick. (Actually, the attorney has claimed since 2003 that the elderly pathologist has less than a year to live.)

Kevorkian says he will never ever again help anyone die. Actually, he has gone beyond that, to say that what he did was a mistake, and that he should have worked within the system to get legal change.

That's what prison authorities say, anyway.

So why should anyone care that he is getting out? Simply, because Jack Kevorkian, faults and all, was a major force for good in this society. He forced us to pay attention to one of the biggest elephants in society's living room: the fact that today vast numbers of people are alive who would rather be dead; who have lives not worth living.

Yet legally they are helpless to do anything about it. A young woman may legally destroy a healthy young embryo growing in her body. Yet if she has a terrible and incurable disease — bone cancer, say — that dooms her to death and tortures her with pain, she legally can do nothing to end her suffering.

That's why people paid attention to Jack Kevorkian.

Mostly, the medical community shunned him and denounced him. But they got the message. Doctors began to get better about pain medication and paying attention to patient suffering; hospice programs boomed.

When my own father died in the early 1990s, I had to make a scene to get him some extra morphine to lessen his pain in his final hours. When my mother died this spring in the same hospital, we didn't even have to ask.

Oregon does allow the terminally ill to check out legally, after jumping through a number of hoops. Yet everywhere else, American society says sit there and suffer; choke to death on your own saliva, endure whatever loss of dignity. To say "enough!" is a right every mentally sound adult ought to have.

What I hope happens now is that the doctor has enough strength and stamina to write, speak and get people to think again about this issue. Forget his creepy paintings, quirky antics. Think about the message. Read some of what he wrote. For what's coming now is a crisis that will vastly increase our urgent need for this right. Think what's coming down, especially if you were born after 1964: Seventy-five million or so baby boomers, aging like mad. A health care system close to collapse. Far, far fewer of you Generation Xers and Yers to pay for the costs of keeping me and my age cohort diapered, warehoused and suffering. Do you really want to pay most of your income out to keep me on machines? Oops, I forgot. I was assuming that you'll still have a job.


Speaking of rank hypocrisy: If you are the parent of a pre-teen girl, the outgoing, lame-duck Michigan Legislature broke its promise and failed to pass legislation that would help prevent her from getting cancer of the cervix.

After passing a bill to give sixth-graders vaccinations to prevent this, conservatives "reconsidered" and killed it. Why? The real reason is that fanatic right-to-lifers think being protected will make it more likely that these children will become sexually active. Fortunately, Democrats take control of the House in three weeks. Let's hope they get pressure to do the right thing, fast.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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