Dr. Jack Kevorkian Philosophizes About Death and the Value of Life

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This is a rush transcript from "Your World With Neil Cavuto," September 2, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Well, Dr. Jack Kevorkian says it is time for the government to stop this kind of fear. He is no stranger to life-and-death situations, as you know. The doctor spent eight years in prison for his role in assisted suicide. By some accounts, he played a role in up to 130 of them.

Dr. Kevorkian joins me now for this exclusive chat.

Doctor, good to have you.


CAVUTO: What do you think of what they are considering in Massachusetts?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I just heard about it about an hour ago when — it does not surprise me, but it does sadden me that the argument hasn't backed away to the fundamental point. That it's a — it's a — it's a — maxim this country was founded on. That you have a natural right — a natural right, not a legislative right, a natural right — to refuse to participate in anything that assaults your body or your conscience. Einstein said it nicely: Conscience supersedes the law of the state.

CAVUTO: But what if the conscience, Doctor,of authorities is that they don't want a lot of people dying? And so recognizing that conscientious obligation of government, they say, they are going to quarantine sick people in their homes, rather than risk a lot more people getting sick.

KEVORKIAN: Well, the way to do it would be to say, put something in your window that, "In this home, we want to be quarantined." Then it's — they're — they're using their — using their own right to accept what the government offers.

But if you do not want it, then you do not put the thing in the window. And everybody who does get vaccinated, so they are not going to get the disease. Those who risked it are going to die or get ill, but I do not think that may happen because the death rate in this flue, this virus, is not like it was in the old days, and it is nothing like the Black Plague.

In other words, we've got a prevalent infection, but not much death yet.


KEVORKIAN: So, it's isn't very vir — vir — virulent, and the person is born with a choice. If he wants to risk disease and death, it's his choice. But he is not going to hurt anybody else who is vaccinated.

CAVUTO: You spent eight years — more than eight years in prison for helping terminally ill people die. The prosecution at the time said that you really murdered them. It has been a long time. Are you angry?

KEVORKIAN: No. I have no regrets. Prison was a nice — it was an experience for me.

CAVUTO: How so?

KEVORKIAN: Most of the inmates and most of the guards supported me.

CAVUTO: Supported your right to help people who, if they wanted to die, die?

KEVORKIAN: I do not tell people they want to die. I do what a physician should do. That is what he is for. You do what — Hippocrates said it very plainly. You do what is best for the patient, period, and the patient knows what is best for him in most cases.

CAVUTO: They called you a murderer. What did you think of that?

KEVORKIAN: Well, if I did it with malice or forethought and without the permission, then I would be a murderer, but they forgot the definition of murderer when they criticized me, because it's so negative an epithet, that they win by fear. They throw these things out for fear, the same thing they are doing with the swine flu.

CAVUTO: Let me ask you, Doctor,about whether you are out of the assisted suicide business. You had said when you were released from jail, and you were beginning after parole, "I'm out of that business." But are you? A lot of folks say that if someone came in, and they needed your help and wanted to die, that Jack Kevorkian would help them. Would you?

KEVORKIAN: I would help them if they deserved it. We don't do it on a whim, you know. In some cases, we had six or eight different consultations over a period of time, and we made sure the patient was rational. If we could get a psychiatrist to check the patient over — but many of them refused. Many physicians refused to cooperate, which forced me to improvise.

CAVUTO: Many are saying that one key aspect of this health care reform they are looking at, Dr. Kevorkian, is these so-called panels that would meet with the elderly and discuss life and end-of-life options. Sarah Palin has called them the death panels. What do you call them?

KEVORKIAN: Well, the death panel makes it sound so negative. See, again, it's all a fear tactic. There will be a panel, but a panel of physicians. Not religious people, not ethicists, physicians. Because a physician is the only one qualified to evaluate the medical condition of the patient, and the only one qualified to decide if the patient's wish is worthy of action.

CAVUTO: So, if an older person is going to this physician panel, and the physician panel has to decide the type of care that's out there and how many people want that type of care, and he is with an older person, that older person is going to go to the back of the line anyway, aren't they?

KEVORKIAN: I didn't get that whole thing. This thing slipped out of my ear.

CAVUTO: All right. Many argue that these physicians meeting with older people will all but tell them, look. You are old. You'll have to stand at the back of the line for health care because you are old. And that is a death panel. What do you say?

KEVORKIAN: They have no right to say that. That depends if a patient — patient is willing to wait, he has to wait. What can he do? But you do not say, you are old so you ought to end it for that reason. He has got to have a legitimate medical reason, not just being old.

CAVUTO: So, calm people of their fears, Doctor,who say, well, this scares me. I am going before this panel of doctors, as Dr. Kevorkian would say, or whatever. And they are going to hear my thoughts on my end-of-life wishes. And they are going to decide whether they are granted, essentially. And that scares folks. What do you tell them?

KEVORKIAN: Well, first of all, a panel of doctors is not doctors who oppose anything. They're open to ration — to rationality.

If a — if a patient consults with a doctor who is opposed to what he wants, then he's at the wrong place. Your — your doctor has got to have a completely open mind because the patient it what counts, not the doctor's feelings. That's why Catholic doctors don't consult with some people.

CAVUTO: Now you — you are — you mentioned Catholic doctors, Doctor,but you — you — you think religion and God and all this plays too much of a role in these decisions.

Are you an atheist?

What are you, exactly?

KEVORKIAN: Call me anything you want. Call Clarence Darrow an atheist. Call Johannes Brahms an atheist. Call me anything you want. All I know is I do not believe in mythology. I do not accept mythology as the basis for my actions or basis for law. And we are based on mythology.

CAVUTO: So when Jack Kevorkian dies, you're not going anywhere?

it's done, you're dead, right?

KEVORKIAN: Yes, you're going into the ground and you're going to stink for a while and then you're going to go into the ground.

CAVUTO: So this obsession we have about death and fear we have about death, what do you think of that?

KEVORKIAN: It's to control.

You know, the British writer Ouida said it nicely. Christianity has made of death a terror which was unknown to the gay calmness of the pagan. So you see it's a terrible thing. You know, the big enemy is death. Everybody talks that way when they talk religion. It affects everybody, they're going to all experience it.

You mean God was cruel enough to make sure he gave you something in the end of life that's going to scare the devil out of you?

CAVUTO: So let me ask you...


CAVUTO: In this health care discussion, as you know, Doctor,part of it is about lengthening our lives and making those lives health — healthier period. And do you think...

KEVORKIAN: Which part?

CAVUTO: ...health care reform itself is a good idea if among its goals is insuring more people, and then making sure they live longer?

KEVORKIAN: Well, sure.

But why live longer only. You don't have the rest of it, without suffering. You forget that, don't you?

CAVUTO: Well, aren't there drugs for suffering and pain?

And aren't there drugs for depression?

And when you were putting them to sleep or whatever you want to call it, you were ignoring some of these other...

KEVORKIAN: No. Everyone I helped...

CAVUTO: You were ignoring some of these other options, for which there are options, right?

KEVORKIAN: Listen, everyone I helped welcomed death. They were not in fear of it, not one of them. And, you know, more than half of my patients were Catholic.

CAVUTO: Now, when — when they looked at what you were offering — and I know you would have a number of discussions and you only really considered one out of five or six people who talked to you, what was the decider for you that said, yes, have this person I'm going to help?

KEVORKIAN: Well, first of all, there are many reasons. For example, the patient would seem to be wavering. On one case, I remember very clearly that I had seen the patient twice in his home, with the family there, in consultation, and we decided that he — I — I knew he was rational and that he really wanted this service.

So when I came there all prepared to help him, I leaned back just one more time, just on a whim, and got very close to him. And I said, do you really want to go through with this? And he said — and he could barely speak when he was — and he made some sound like, "no." I packed up my things and left.

CAVUTO: Right now, if someone were to come back to you doctor, and present themselves in a similar situation — I'm in great pain, I'm terminal, I'm going to die, I want your help to die, would you help them?


CAVUTO: Why not?

KEVORKIAN: Why should I go to prison again?

CAVUTO: So if that weren't a consideration, you would?

KEVORKIAN: Well, sure it is, isn't it?

You've got — I lost one tenth of my life already in prison. I'm not going to lose the rest at this age.

CAVUTO: But...

KEVORKIAN: The law is bad. It's immoral.

CAVUTO: Right.

KEVORKIAN: You don't need a law to practice medicine. You don't tell how — how to do a heart transplant with laws. You don't tell how to treat a cold with laws. The medical profession handles it and that's the problem. The medical profession opposes this, calls it almost criminal, it is not — it is not ethical and therefore the law steps in. The medical profession — the AMA is to blame for this controversy.

CAVUTO: What about your view of life?

I know your view with death and that people should freely entertain it if they're in great pain and suffering. But you had been arguing that life itself can stink, right?

I mean you sound like a very depressed guy on life itself, that it's painful, that it's almost a waste of time.

Am I reading that right?

KEVORKIAN: No. The — the body stinks when you die, not life.

CAVUTO: But...

KEVORKIAN: Life is an abstraction.

CAVUTO: Yes. But you had — you had been saying in the past that with all its hardships and all its tediousness and without some of the rights that I talk about, quoting you earlier, life is not worth living.

What did you mean by that?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I'm not the only one to say that. Some big philosophers have said it. Schopenhauer said it. I mean a — some anthropologists have said it. I mean some people don't feel life is worth living.

I had a young teen — a girl in her — her early teens who wrote to me and said, I just don't want to be here. I've just felt this way all my life. I don't want to be here. And she's been through all kinds of psychiatric treatment, diagnosis, had even convulsive therapy. It didn't help. She says, I'm not depressed, I don't have any pain, I do not want to be here.

Now what do you do with a case like that?

CAVUTO: But I guess the reason why I ask, Doctor,is you had also said, as someone who — who had never been married, never had children, I think you said that you had never loved, that: "I would rather not have been born. Who needed this god-dang going to jail and all this trouble? You know, what good did it do? It doesn't do any good anyway."

That sounded like a guy almost ready to cash it in.

KEVORKIAN: Well, that's because of your — I am not — I — I'm realistic. That's what saves me. I — I felt that way long ago. I analyzed it as a kid. I was about 10 or 11 years old.

I says, is it worth going through all of this?

No. And all my life, I said had I had a choice, I would have chosen not to be born.

What's wrong with that?

CAVUTO: Do you still...


CAVUTO: ... feel that way?

KEVORKIAN: I — there was no misery.

CAVUTO: Do you — after all you've been through, do you still feel that way?

KEVORKIAN: Yes. As long as I'm healthy...

CAVUTO: That it would have been better had Dr. Jack Kevorkian never been born?

KEVORKIAN: Had I never been born and I was a — I mean if I being born, as long as I'm not pained — in pain or suffering or terribly depressed chronically, I would say it's worth going on. But when the time comes when it's not worth going on, no. I would say then, it would have been better, perhaps, if I'd never been born. I don't think the ups and downs are even. I think the downs in life are greater than the ups.

CAVUTO: Has it been that kind of life?

KEVORKIAN: It's for, I think every — talk to people in Iraq, Afghanistan. Ask them if they — if they were glad to be born.

CAVUTO: All right, Doctor,can you stick around?

I do want to — to move on to health care. And I know your — your brief shot at a political career. That what — you did better than a lot of folks thought when you ran for Congress.

We're going to talk a little bit more about that and — and what your future plans are.


CAVUTO: More with Dr. Jack Kevorkian right after this.


CAVUTO: All right, continuing right now with Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

And, Doctor,good to have you back. A lot of people know you by that other name. I don't know how it ever went down with you, but "Doctor Death." Did that bother you that that was sort of like your nickname? Doctor Death, Doctor Death.

KEVORKIAN: Never, never. One of my research projects, way back when I was training in pathology, was, concerned people who were on the verge of death — I used to make rounds to see who was at that stage, and the nurses coined that phrase, and my friends call me that, too.

CAVUTO: And you are OK with it?

KEVORKIAN: What's wrong with death? Death is not what you think it is. It is a part of life. It is part of nature. We are just made afraid of it.

CAVUTO: Let me ask you a little bit about, since your mercy killings, however you want to look at it, Oregon, Washington, Montana, among those either having such laws in effect that would allow you to do what you did, or are considering. And many have been wondering if others quickly follow suit and and under health care reform whether many more will. What do you think?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I suppose many more will, but they are all doing it wrong.

CAVUTO: What do you mean?

KEVORKIAN: Well, a doctor cannot be involved. A doctor can't be involved! If a doctor hands a pill to a patient, he will be charged and put in prison. Now, where is the AMA on this? Does the AMA support those laws in Oregon and Washington, or no? I don't know. Do they?

CAVUTO: If it doesn't —

KEVORKIAN: If the AMA doesn't support them — I'm sure they're going to say no, because they want to keep their stand that they're against this. Why? How can you be against a legitimate medical service that was widely practiced in ancient Greece and Rome, in Hypocrites' day and by all the philosophers who agreed with it? Why would you suddenly make it a crime? You can't make a crime with a law anyway. You can just stop a person from using a right. That's all a law does.

CAVUTO: You know, Doctor,your name has been used and sometimes not used, or indirectly referred to in this health care reform debate. The president of the United States, himself, indicating when it comes to caring for our elderly, that some tough decisions are sometimes in order. This is from the president earlier.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What you can't do, or you can, but you should not do, is start saying things like, "we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on grandma." I mean, come on.


CAVUTO: What did you make of that?

KEVORKIAN: That is how the religious people think because their mind is kind of in a straitjacket, you know. Religion puts your mind in a straitjacket. You can't say what is not in creed. Emerson said it nicely. He said, "As prayers are the weakness of the will, so are creeds' — prayers are a weakness of — of something. Creeds are a weakness of will. All religion is to make you to conform to a different way of thinking that you feel naturally.

CAVUTO: All right. And then it leads us naturally to grandmothers. This is from the president. Listen to this.


OBAMA: At least we can let doctors know, and your mom know, that, you know what? Maybe this is not going to help? Maybe you are better off not having the surgery but taking the painkiller.


CAVUTO: What do you think he meant by that?

KEVORKIAN: I did not get the whole question. What was it?

CAVUTO: That sometimes in these kinds of things, especially with an older person, you do make choices, that — that, is it the surgery? Or do you opt for a pill? Not necessarily a death pill, but that that sometimes there are hard financial choices to make. Leaving religion out of it, it's just — it's a hard financial decision and in health care that's it.

KEVORKIAN: Well, that is true, but that is a doctor's job. He is the only one who can lay out the options and explain all the details of each option. He is the only one. Who else?

CAVUTO: If you do not mind my switching gears, Doctor,but I wanted to raise this, since I've known that you were coming. The whole Michael Jackson and whether he was murdered. And this report now that he was given propofol, and that given in the doses that it was given was fatal, and tantamount to murder. What do you think of that? Do you think the doctor that gave him that murdered him?

KEVORKIAN: No, I do not think he was malicious. No. Murder is defined as malice or forethought. Did he have that as forethought? I doubt it. Maybe Jackson, himself, just craved these things so much that he pestered the doctor who gave it to him just to keep him quiet, but the patient got what he wanted.

CAVUTO: So this was Michael Jackson's doing, not the doctors doing?

KEVORKIAN: Well, he is the one who says yes or no to take a drug.


Finally, I — you are a controversial figure. People do not know this about you, but a lot of those assisted suicides, you did not get a penny. You live a very simple life. You are not a rich guy. But, increasingly, in the public appearances that you have had, you strike some as a very bitter guy. Earlier in Florida, you struck some students as even anti-American. This is what a lot of people remember.


KEVORKIAN: Well, America is not the country you think it is. These people have swallowed the line that America is the land of the free. How free are you? You are as free as the law lets you be. And America is the greatest law factory of the world. That was from a justice of the Supreme Court; he said that.


CAVUTO: But you turned the American flag around to show a swastika, and to a lot of folks, they said, "Doc, now you are pushing it."

KEVORKIAN: What was that?

CAVUTO: You were showing a swastika on the American flag, Doctor. And that — that — is when a lot of people, who even liked you, said, "All right, now he's gone crazy on us."

KEVORKIAN: Well, we have a lot of traits of fascism in this country. Any Rand predicted it, and said it is happening. And there are 14 principles of fascism by a man named Lawrence Brit, who was with the Czechoslovak intelligence service. And you, and America fits all 14 principles.

CAVUTO: So, you think we are done as a country?

KEVORKIAN: Well, we are done as a free country, yes. We are all enslaved and sheep. Most people are sheep. They cry when they have economic problems. "Do something for me," they say to the government. That did not happen in the old days. They went out and farmed. Unfortunately, we got technology, which changed our way of living, so that you must ask for a job.

CAVUTO: So, you think all these handouts, I got you, so the handouts, the bank rescues, the auto rescues, the auto sales clunker program, all of that — you would have none of it?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I do not know if I would have none of it, but I would not have the degree we have now. Look it, you cannot transgress a natural right. That is the problem in this country. Natural rights are not honored.

The founding fathers founded this country based on natural rights, you are born with them. They are not created by law. You cannot transfer them to anybody. You are born with them until you die. You want to prove it? Look at a baby, the most free person in the world. Try to dictate to a baby what is illegal. Try to make a baby stop something because it is illegal. Try to say, "You cannot urinate there."


KEVORKIAN: You can't. That's the way animals are. They are free. They are born with certain rights, which we sometimes call instincts, and they don't — unfortunately, I don't think they've got laws which block some of them. Maybe they do. I don't know. Maybe they have rules in their societies.

CAVUTO: Maybe natural law.

KEVORKIAN: But it's the — the function of a law is only to keep you from using a right, that's all. A law can't create anything, a crime or a right.

CAVUTO: Let me...

KEVORKIAN: Can't create it.

CAVUTO: Let me ask you, Doctor, how do you support yourself now? I know your medical license was revoked. You live a simple, spartan life. You take very good care of yourself. You look in great shape. You're 81 years old, I believe. How do you support yourself?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I'm on, first of all, Social Security, which is probably a mistake, but I'll take it, I paid into it. You took my money, I'm taking some back.

CAVUTO: Well, you are not going to get an increase — I don't know if you heard, you won't be getting an increase this year.

KEVORKIAN: I heard that I heard that. But that does not surprise me. I'm surprised I get anything at all.

But the other thing is, I lecture at schools, and I love that, talking to young people, because their minds are still pliable. The older people are maybe like you, are petrified, petrified brains.



CAVUTO: Well, I have you on. I can't be too petrified. I enjoy it.

Let me get...


KEVORKIAN: We're all petrified.

CAVUTO: But now, you know, you can't be that much of an alienated guy. I mean, you have got Al Pacino playing you in this HBO movie that's coming out. How does Al Pacino look as you?

KEVORKIAN: Well, he looks exactly like — they did a great job on him. He looks exactly like me. I thought that was my photograph when a buddy showed it to me.

CAVUTO: Now can you tell us or do you know how the movie is going to make you look? Is it going to be a sympathetic portrayal? Is it going to be a hatchet job? What?

KEVORKIAN: I don't know — well, it can't be more of a hatchet job than I have been through already.

CAVUTO: So anything would be...

KEVORKIAN: It can only be better.

CAVUTO: Only would be better from here. Now, you know, I wish you continued good health, Doctor. You are 81. You are not looking forward to go anywhere after you die, heaven or hell or anywhere. How do you want to be remembered?

KEVORKIAN: It does not matter. It does not matter at all. When I am dead, nothing matters. Just like you were born.

CAVUTO: Are you going to have a grave? Are you going to have a tombstone? Anything?


CAVUTO: Really?


CAVUTO: Have you any final wishes on how you go or...

KEVORKIAN: Well, probably cremation because it is the cleanest and then easy to dispose of the remains.

CAVUTO: And what — have you passed along those wishes to folks? I am not wishing you ill, Doctor, I'm just curious.

KEVORKIAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I have passed them along.

Can I ask you one question?


KEVORKIAN: When you transplant a heart from a baboon into a baby, as we did, and you say the body of that baby is sacred, does that profane heart from the baboon become sacred when you place it in the body? Or when you take out a gallbladder and throw it in the garbage, is that a sacred gallbladder in the garbage, or as soon as it is out of its body it loses its sanctity?

You see the silliness of our mythology? Children ask the questions I'm just asking now. The trouble is, children get slapped for asking questions like that because they have no defense. But you can't slap me. I can ask the question. It's a logical question.

You say the body is sacred. What do you mean by that. It is Godlike, divine? Then all of your organs are, your intestines are, and they must have divine contents, too, your intestines, can you imagine that?

CAVUTO: There is a thought there. But were you always, Doctor...

KEVORKIAN: There's a thought because nobody thinks.

CAVUTO: Were you always with these views? Like, when you were a kid growing up, did you grow up in a religious family? Did you believe in God? Did you believe...


CAVUTO: So from the get-go, you — that was...


CAVUTO: ... it?

KEVORKIAN: My parents never foisted religion on me. My father never was religious much. My mother was, in the old country religion, but not fanatic. We would go on two times a year, I would drive her to Detroit. And we would go there just to be with them. But I never believed in God, and I never believed in Santa Claus, because it wasn't a tradition in the family. They did not do that in the old country.

CAVUTO: What did you do for...

KEVORKIAN: And I was saved from all of these...

CAVUTO: What did you do for — what did you do for fun as a kid then? What is the funnest memory you have?

KEVORKIAN: Well, we played baseball and cops and robbers and games. We had fun. But this is natural, everybody does that. Animals do that. They play. They are playful.

CAVUTO: What made you want...


CAVUTO: What made you want to become a pathologist?

KEVORKIAN: Because it was connected with every field in medicine and also the laboratory, which is important. I found out I like to research, by the way, so it was the right choice.

CAVUTO: And you liked...

KEVORKIAN: I never considered myself...

CAVUTO: And you liked helping people live, right?

KEVORKIAN: Well, no, not really. You helped — you just helped the doctors who were helping the people. A pathologist generally is not a physician. He does not treat patients. A physician...

CAVUTO: I know, but part of...

KEVORKIAN: A physician...

CAVUTO: Part of that responsibility is you are working with physicians in what is the...

KEVORKIAN: That's right.

CAVUTO: ... extension or continuation or the value of life. So you didn't share that?

KEVORKIAN: You are a highly specialized technologist, is what you are as a pathologist.

CAVUTO: All right. Doctor, thank you.

KEVORKIAN: Oh sure, you go through medical training...

CAVUTO: Yes, go ahead.

KEVORKIAN: You go through medical training, and you know.


KEVORKIAN: Well, you are welcome. It has been a pleasure.

CAVUTO: It has been a pleasure here. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, continued good health.

KEVORKIAN: Thank you.

CAVUTO: Be well.

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