Dr. Jack Kevorkian has something very specific in store for you when you meet him these days: an education.
“Dr. Death,” the outspoken and controversial champion of assisted suicide who presided over more than 130 deaths in the '90s, has a new mission in his post-incarceration years: to inform you that you have more rights than you think you do, and that they’re being kept from you.
That, and so much more.
Kevorkian, a thin and delicate 82 now, vehemently insists that you can do anything you want in America that doesn’t harm others or their property, and that right is constantly being eroded by needless laws and senseless rules.
According to Kevorkian, you are free to live any way you please—and just as importantly, die the same way, with the help of a doctor if you choose, in a safe and comfortable way, as long as you give your consent to be euthanized.
Once a notorious right-to-die advocate who constructed suicide devices to allow people with painful conditions to kill themselves, Kevorkian has now greatly expanded the scope of the rights he wants to champion, he told TakePart in a recent interview. Assisted suicide is just one facet of that effort.
Kevorkian is back on the national radar again with the release of the HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino, and the follow-up documentary Kevorkian, which debuts June 28, also on HBO. The exposure has put him in the limelight three years after his release from prison for a second-degree murder in Michigan.
In that conviction, which spelled the end of his active campaign to make assisted suicide legal and recognized by publicly helping people die, Kevorkian served eight years for killing a man named Thomas Youk, whom he injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs. He filmed the death, and the footage aired on 60 Minutes. He was released due to ill health and good behavior in 2007.
Now somewhat frail but lively, his intensity is undimmed. Stern pronouncements, like his famous “dying is not a crime” quote, come at a rapid clip and are a staple for Kevorkian.
“The people are weak. They’re sheep,” he says of Americans' inability to mobilize on a cause.
“Attack the American Medical Association. … The AMA is a tyrannical organization," he says of affecting change on assisted suicide.
“It’s not an educational system; it’s a system training you to be a slave,” he says of the U.S. school system.
How does it all connect? What is Kevorkian trying to do by saying such things, and what underlies it? The answer is three short words: The Ninth Amendment.
The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution, in essence, says that the rights that are specifically laid out in the Constitution can’t be used to supersede the ones that people are inherently born with in the United States.
The right to die. The right to take whatever drugs you want. The right, he says in a stark example, to kill and eat someone, if that is their wish and they give their full consent to the act.
Just 21 words long, the amendment became revelatory for Kevorkian when he first read it in jail.
“The most powerful, the most precious thing you have … is the Ninth Amendment,” he says.
In his view, the Ninth is pivotal because it touches upon the fundamental rules behind the same issue that underlies a person’s right to die.
“You have the right to own and do anything you want, say anything you want, anywhere you want, as long as you don’t threaten or hurt anybody else or their property,” he says.
That extends to all kinds of activity, Kevorkian said. The right to use pot and cocaine. The right to own weapons. The right for gays to marry. The government has no place in putting restrictions on those freedoms, he says.
"If [gay people] want to marry somebody, that’s their business. Government has no business dictating that. Just like they have no business dictating what you do for health,” he says. “I’m for allowing what the person wants.”
But such a sweeping view of personal freedoms pits him against very big opponents: namely, the Supreme Court and the government. These two institutions, he says, are bastions of tyranny that rule America, crushing rights entitled in the Ninth Amendment. He seethes about their methods—and the greater populace at large for supplicating to them.
He says people in general are sheep, without the courage to stand up for their rights. “The American sheeple,” is his moniker of choice.
But his broad outlook stems from the issue from which he will never be able to separate himself: the right of a person to die—and the right of a doctor to kill a person with consent.
“There Will Be No Doctor Coming Forth to Help Me”
For all his newfound vigor for the Ninth Amendment, Kevorkian still has things to say about right-to-die issues. Many hail him as a pioneer in that arena, but Kevorkian himself says that American advocacy on the topic has stalled.
No one else will take up his mantle, no one will openly advocate for physician-assisted suicide, and certainly no one will openly euthanize a patient the way he did. Even in the case of his own death, should he want that assistance, he scoffs at the notion that a doctor will step forward to kill him. Doctors are cowards, he says, by and large.
“There will be no doctor coming forth to help me, I don’t think, not in this kind of society, yet. They want to wait for the law to say it’s okay,” he says.
Kevorkian has famously said that he did what he did for himself. That he was fighting for the right for a doctor to usher him quietly to death, should he ever want one to.
Did he win? Does he have that right? No, he says.
The culprit in this case, he says, is the American Medical Association. If that body would just declare assisted suicide a valid medical procedure, like brain surgery or an appendectomy, no law could stop doctors from doing it, in the way they couldn’t stop heart transplants from taking place.
Doctors, and most people, he says, know that helping someone in persistent physical pain die is a valid, warranted medical service—but they don’t dare to risk saying so, and the AMA as a body doesn’t have the will to do it.
Which leaves Kevorkian in a worse position than many of his former patients. “I’m sure there will be no doctor who will come forward and risk anything to help me," he says. "If he does, it will be secretly, and I won’t have it done secretly.”
“You’ve Got to Act”
Regardless of the manner of his death, while he’s alive, Kevorkian has an opinion on how to affect change—real, demonstrable change. It is, in a word, action.
“You’ve got to act,” he said. “A couple of good actions would wipe out much talk, much need for talk. Like Mandela took.”
In Kevorkian, looking at his place in history in a book of iconic figures of the 20th century, he smiles at his spot right after John F. Kennedy.
“You think this would have happened if I wrote a book?” he asks. “It’s action.”
But, with typical Kevorkian-style disdain, he warns that true action is “dangerous,” and that most people are unwilling or unable to take it. Often, it involves the need for someone to go to prison, to challenge precedents by putting themselves at risk. Most people won’t.
Again he blames the “tyrants” in the government for keeping the populace comfortable and sedate; we live under a subdued form of fascism, he contends.
In the documentary, Kevorkian says that we should look to youth for action in coming years.
“It’s the young ones that are going to do this, and they’re going to fight for their rights in the future.”
What is the best way to get them to do that?
“Change the educational system,” he said. “First of all, get honesty in it. … Education is to build character, and to teach kids how to learn, how to educate themselves … instead of teaching them to choose a trade to get into to make money. That’s all we have.”
The Erosion of Democracy
As viewers of Kevorkian will learn, post-incarceration Dr. Death is a challenging character, intolerant of many things and unrepentant about his actions. Kevorkian killed at least 130 people, some of whom, under autopsy, were shown to have no disease at all at the time they were euthanized.
They had merely been depressed when they sought his help. One was cut open for his kidneys, which Kevorkian tried to peddle as donated organs. The last was killed by lethal injection on national TV.
Such actions make him polarizing, but viewers of the documentary will also learn that he is an unexpected renaissance man, of sorts. He paints graphic, disturbing pictures (one with his own blood), with a surprisingly deft hand. He composes music and invents gadgets. He eats a strict, minimalist diet and once made a film based on Handel’s Messiah.
He is also, by his own description, unique.
Without a wife or child to care for, he was in a singular position to risk his own welfare for the cause of physician-assisted suicide. And that’s a cause the documentary shows many people support. Doctors help people come into the world, but don’t help them out. Patients are kept alive by the wonders of medicine, but can’t use those advancements to die in a peaceful manner.
As Kevorkian moves on to a new phase of advocacy, no one, it seems, will step forward to press on the issue. But American society’s failures on a greater level worry him more.
“Only when we finish 'democratizing' the world… then we’ll realize, we’ll even be shown that we’re slaves, because then you won’t have the power to do anything. And we’re headed that way.
“Time is running out. Your democracy is eroding, your civilization is crumbling and justice disappeared long ago. So you’re very close now to being totally enslaved.”
Kevorkian watches the reaction he gets with that line, with just a hint of a smile.
“Never heard that before, have you?”