HE HAS AN ORGANIZED FAN CLUB, and some of his supporters regard him as a living saint. But few people have a higher opinion of Jack Kevorkian than "Dr. Death" himself. Writing in an obscure health-care publication last year, he advertised himself as the intellectual heir of Einstein, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger, the birthcontrol pioneer. Under oath before a judge in 1990, he compared his early efforts to help people kill themselves to the birth of Christianity.
In person, Kevorkian comes across as an Old Testament prophet, with his austere lifestyle, emaciated frame and the piercing gaze of a true believer. Speaking to reporters at a court bearing in mid-November, he exuded righteousness, and dismissed criticism from the mainstream medical profession with withering contempt. Undoubtedly, his crusade to legitimize doctor-assisted suicide has resonated with the American public. Last week, while out on bail on charges of violating Michigan's new ban on such practices, he helped his 20th patient, 61-year-old physician Ali Khalili, to end his life. And Kevorkian's early advocacy of lethal injection to execute condemned criminals is practiced in numerous states today. But these ideas are only part of a broad campaign by Kevorkian to change the American way of death. His attorneys declined requests for an interview, but his lesser-known goals, described in obscure publications obtained by NEWSWEEK, Put him on the far-out fringe, not just of medicine but of American culture.
Kevorkian's obsession with death goes beyond his self-appointed missions of mercy to an enthusiasm for the macabre. As a pathologist-in-training at University of Michigan hospital in the 1950s, he made regular visits to terminally ill patients and peered deeply into their eyes. His objective was to pinpoint the precise moment death occurred. Many years later Kevorkian admitted: "There was no practical application. I was curious, that's all." In his writings over the years, Kevorkian has also displayed a fascination with the mechanics of capital punishment. In one article in the Journal of the National Medical Association, he discussed experiments on newly executed corpses, including a case in which 19th-century French medical students grabbed heads as they fell from the guillotine. "Do you hear me?" they shouted into the ears. According to Kevorkian, there was no reply.
In 1960, after qualifying as a specialist in pathology, Kevorkian embarked upon what he later described to Michigan investigators as a "checkered" career. He bounced from hospital to hospital, and tried to set up his own diagnostic clinic near Detroit. He claims he was driven out of business by doctors who feared the competition. Later he went to California to pursue a film project that never saw the light of day. (Friends say he wanted to make a movie of Handel's "Messiah.") Later still, he commuted between two part-time pathology jobs at hospitals in Long Beach, sometimes sleeping in his rusty VW van. In 1985, he returned to Michigan, where he has lived off canned food and social security. His lawyer says he has turned down speaking fees of up to $10,000 because he is conducting his campaign for humanity, not personal gain.
Long before campaigning for "assisted suicide," Kevorkian advocated what he calls "terminal human experimentation." In short, this means experimenting on people while they are still alive--particularly on their brains. In 1958, he presented a paper to the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, in which he proposed allowing condemned convicts to volunteer for "painless" medical experiments that would begin while they were alive but which would eventually be fatal.
Kevorkian continued to refine this idea over the years in pamphlets and scholarly journals. In a 1960 pamphlet entitled "Medical Research and the Death Penalty," he argued that experiments on humans could provide far greater benefits than those on animals, and that killing condemned convicts without experimenting on them was a waste of healthy bodies. Kevorkian maintained that his scheme could offer innocent men on death row an additional period of grace: they could be kept alive, but unconscious, for weeks while experiments continued. "If the experiment was not excessively mutilating...the subject could conceivably be revived if evidence of innocence was uncovered."
More than two decades later, in an obscure German journal, Medicine and Law, Kevorkian outlined an elaborate set of rules for human experiments. Subjects would be under deep anesthesia, except in special cases: "Some audacious and highly motivated criminals may agree to remain conscious at the start of certain valuable experiments...That would make possible probes like those now carried out during surgery on brains of conscious patients..." In the same article, he seemed to suggest that experiments could go beyond death-row inmates to almost anyone facing "imminent death," including: "(a) all brain-dead, comatose, mentally incompetent or otherwise completely uncommunicative individuals; (b) all neonates, infants and children less than (--) years old (age must be arbitrarily set by consensus). (c) all living intrauterine and aborted or delivered fetuses."
Kevorkian is vague on exactly what medical benefits such experimentation could produce. "I can state boldly that the first such human experiments would prove some current 'truths' wrong and would reveal other undreamed-of things," he insisted in 1960. In a 1991 book, "Prescription: Medicide," put out by a publisher in Buffalo, N.Y., he called again for advancing "knowledge about the essence of human death" through "research on living human bodies." But Dr. Robert Levine, an ethics professor at Yale Medical School, says: "What Kevorkian is talking about is research nobody wants to do anyway."
Experts on medical and legal ethics who have read Kevorkian's writings are particularly appalled by his comments about experiments on concentration-camp inmates by Nazi doctors during World War II. Kevorkian argued in a 1986 article that Nazi experiments, such as dropping prisoners into icy water to see how quickly they froze to death, were "not absolutely negative. Those who can subordinate feelings of outrage and revulsion to more objective scrutiny must admit that a tiny bit of practical value for mankind did result (which, of course, did not and never could exonerate the criminal doctors)." In a 1991 interview with the Detroit Free Press Magazine, Kevorkian went so far as to minimize the Holocaust, insisting that his Armenian ancestors had it even worse. "The Jews were gassed. Armenians were killed in every conceivable way...So the Holocaust doesn't interest me, see? They've had a lot of publicity, but they didn't suffer as much."
These kinds of pronouncements trouble even some of Kevorkian's friends. Dr. Harold Klawans, a Chicago neurologist, spent time with Kevorkian while preparing a proposal for a book about his suicide machine--the contraption of drug bottles and intravenous drips he used in his first assisted death. "He maintained that the Nazi experiments had some validity," Klawans says. After Klawans supplied him with scholarly works attacking the experiments, Kevorkian toned down references to them in his 1991 book. Klawans adds that while Kevorkian says things that sound anti-Semitic, "I wouldn't accuse him of being truly anti-Semitic." One of Kevorkian's lawyers, Michael Schwartz, told NEWSWEEK that his client sometimes makes proposals "solely to provoke debate" and that he "does view Nazis in the most negative way possible." Schwartz also said that Kevorkian still stands by his proposals for human experiments, though he does not necessarily intend to carry them out himself.
Lately, in pamphlets and TV interviews, Kevorkian has been advancing a proposal to allow condemned criminals to donate their organs for transplant. He also has a scheme for, in effect, franchising his euthanasia practice by setting up a network of "obitoriums," where like-minded doctors could help more people commit suicide. Meanwhile, Kevorkian and his supporters continue to heap invective on their antagonists in the medical and legal establishments, calling them "crooked" and "corrupt. " On other occasions he has referred to them as "Nazis."
Is Kevorkian a prophet or a pariah? Supporters say that just because some of the ideas he advances are extreme, that doesn't mean all of his proposals are worthless or crazy. Still, his writings raise questions about whether "Dr. Death" is the best person to counsel the sick and the despondent in a decision that would be their last.