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Interview with Dr. Jack Kevorkian

Aired June 26, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good morning and welcome. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

We're doing something a little different this morning on SGMD. We're taking a closer look at a man who has fascinated me ever since I was a medical student. When I was learning how to be a doctor, America was getting its first look at this -- it's the invention of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. It's an invention to assist people who want to commit suicide.


GUPTA: With regard to the things that most people know Jack Kevorkian for, do you have any regrets about any of that?

Dr. JACK KEVORKIAN, SUICIDE MACHINE INVENTOR: No, no. It's your purpose, physician. How can you regret helping a suffering patient?



GUPTA: Between 1990 and 1998, Dr. Jack Kevorkian helped at least 138 people kill themselves -- to avoid suffering, he says. There was one trial and one acquittal. But after giving a lethal injection himself and taping it, he was sent to prison for murder. He served a little more than eight years. And all that's told in a new documentary with the simple name, "Kevorkian."

I wanted to talk about his impact on the world of medicine. So I asked him to meet me at the University of Michigan where we both learned how to be doctors. And I was the class of 1993. He, the class of 1952.

One of the first things he told me was: I'm not sentimental. And then, we found his old class picture.


KEVORKIAN: There I am. There I is. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead. A good friend of mine.

GUPTA: Is it nostalgic for you?

KEVORKIAN: Well, invokes memories, yes.

GUPTA: As your life has gone ever wonder what the folks on this picture ever thought of what you're doing, what you did?

KEVORKIAN: Oh, yes. When I first did it, the first case, first of all, they thought I stigmatized the class. And one of the classmates said that I should be -- I should be put in prison for life.

GUPTA: Do you think over the last 10 years, 20 years, hospice care has improved, pain management has improved?

KEVORKIAN: Yes, after we started working, it really improved.

GUPTA: Do you think it was in part because ...

KEVORKIAN: Well, why do you think created the pain clinics all over?

GUPTA: But was that the right -- I mean, that seems like a good outcome, right? I mean, treat people's pain ...

KEVORKIAN: That's if you -- yes, that's if you want to keep living and some people don't.

GUPTA: So, anybody who doesn't want to continue living should have that option?

KEVORKIAN: If he's suffering.

GUPTA: Did you ever tell anybody no?

KEVORKIAN: Oh, four out of five.

GUPTA: And what was your rationale for saying no?

KEVORKIAN: After consulting with them. They needed more treatment. We had to have their mental capacity evaluated.

We had the patient get their medical records, luckily there was a law passed where they had the right to do that. We get their records and go through everything in detail, see what they've done so far, see what the doctors and the specialists say -- is there more to be done or is this terminal.

GUPTA: So they had to be terminal?


GUPTA: They could -- I mean, there's been some studies, as you know, and I wondered what you thought of them, but in one of the studies out of Colorado, they said of 75 patients that they looked at of yours, five of them had no evidence of disease.

KEVORKIAN: The original diagnoses though were by other doctors.

GUPTA: Did that bother when you read? That it could be possible that five people had no evidence of disease?

KEVORKIAN: No, there was -- well, how about a quadriplegic? He's not terminal. Would you want to be quadriplegic?

GUPTA: I don't think anybody would want to, but I'm not sure I'd want to die.

KEVORKIAN: OK. I would. There's a difference. I would not want to live with a tube in my neck and not be able to move a finger. I wouldn't -- that to me is not life. Like who is this physicist ...

GUPTA: Steven Hawking? That's a good example.

KEVORKIAN: No, he's -- he's very admired for what he's doing. I don't admire him for that. I admire him for what he did and his brain when he thinks, when he comes up with his thinking. But I don't admire him because he wants to keep living.

GUPTA: Do you think he should have died?

KEVORKIAN: No, I shouldn't -- not should have died. He chooses to live. That's fine. But if he chose to die, I would agree with it. Autonomy is the key.

GUPTA: But people don't always know what they want, Dr. Kevorkian.

KEVORKIAN: Oh, they know what they want. They know what they want. There's feelings, your instincts tell you that. You know what you want.

GUPTA: We've all made bad decisions in times of suffering and desperation.

KEVORKIAN: Sure. But that doesn't mean you don't know what you want.


GUPTA: When we come back, we will have much more of Dr. Kevorkian on why he hates the assisted suicide laws that now exist in three states. Stay with us.



KEVORKIAN: Most people know (ph), because I can be absolutely free without fear. I may take consequences and may take some pain once in a while, but I'm free. Freedom has a price. Most people aren't willing to pay it.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

This morning, we're taking a closer look at Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the man who launched a national debate about assisted suicide. There's a new film about his life and I wanted to learn what makes him tick. I also wanted to know, was he always so fascinated by death.


GUPTA: When you started medical school here, this is part of the reason we decided to come to Ann Harbor, when you started here, did you have some of these thoughts then that you have now?

KEVORKIAN: No. I didn't really want to go to college after I graduate from the high school. And the first thing I wanted to be in life when I was a kid -- and I was good at it -- was announcing baseball games, you know?

GUPTA: Is that right?

KEVORKIAN: That's what I wanted to be, a baseball announcer. And then when I got out of high school, I got good grades in high school, honor student and all that. But no direction, no mission, you know?

And so, I -- my dad said, well, look, he said, try it for -- try it for just a semester and see how you like it or not. So that's why I went to college.

GUPTA: But what did you tell people? They must have asked you at some point why you want to go to medical school.

KEVORKIAN: Sure. I switched to -- I had one semester of engineering, and I didn't like it. And so, I decided what can I do? Well, medicine looked promising. It has honor, glory, the so-called noble profession, you know, so-called.

GUPTA: You say so-called noble profession.

KEVORKIAN: Yes, it's not noble.

GUPTA: When you're a medical student or during your training, did you ever keep someone alive, someone who was going to die?

KEVORKIAN: Well, we just followed orders. You had no choice. I saw cases that I -- that never should have been kept alive, never -- as an intern especially. So I sensed that euthanasia was necessary. And so, I didn't do anything about it because I knew it was illegal and I knew it'd be criticized. You would be called a quitter. Well, you know, nothing positive about it.

But I knew it was not necessary. You see this terrible example of a human being, all misshaped, miscolored, suffering, you know, can't -- helpless.

I remember, especially, in a state hospital seeing a child with hydrocephalus and I had never saw one before. The whole body was about this long. You know how long the body was without the head? The head was this long, like a balloon full of water lying flat. The head was kind of, you know, lying flat like it's ready to bust.

Then I realized that there are some cases that should not be kept alive. But I never said it publicly.

GUPTA: You setting up this device.


GUPTA: The patient has been evaluated. But ultimately, they're going to make this decision. Does the doctor have to be present when this happens?

KEVORKIAN: No, he has to do it. That's like saying, well, we can't have your heart transplant without a doctor present.

GUPTA: Do you think it's the same thing?

KEVORKIAN: Not be present, do it. That's what's wrong with these laws we have now. Oregon, Montana, and Washington, that's not euthanasia. The doctor can't do it. The patient has got to take the pill himself.

Now, if he can't move, he can't have it. If he can't swallow, he can't have it.

GUPTA: What's happening in Oregon right now ...

KEVORKIAN: ... is wrong.

GUPTA: Do you think it's wrong?

KEVORKIAN: Of course it's wrong. That's not medical service.


GUPTA: When we come back, there's something else that Dr. Kevorkian told me that really came as a shock. Don't go away.


GUPTA: Since getting out of prison, Dr. Jack Kevorkian says he still gets calls and letters from people asking for help to commit suicide. These days, he says no, but it makes him upset.


KEVORKIAN: I personally know three people, two personally, the other through contact, correspondence -- highly intelligent men, retired, former executive CEOs, not sick, not in pain, not depressed, who tell me all point blank, I'm going to end it. There's just nothing left to live for. All my friends are gone. My family is gone. Nothing left to live for.

GUPTA: You're saying anybody who wants to end their life, and these two people ...


GUPTA: ... that you're talking about, though, they're perfectly healthy?

KEVORKIAN: I'm not saying that.

GUPTA: What exactly are you -- what should happen?

KEVORKIAN: You take that teenager who wants to end his life because he's immature. But you've got a guy who is retired, he's -- former CEO, intelligent, healthy, good looking, everything good about him, nothing left to do in life, nothing left, no mission.

GUPTA: That they know of.

KEVORKIAN: No purpose. No purpose.

GUPTA: That they know of.

KEVORKIAN: Look, well, who else would know but he, the person?

GUPTA: For many people, life is a gift.

KEVORKIAN: It's a gift? Who gave it to you?

GUPTA: Is life a gift?

KEVORKIAN: Who gives it to you? Who gives you life? Your parents. Right. You weren't asked to be -- you know, Schopenhauer said it nicely, "What crime has this child committed that it should be born?"

GUPTA: That's a profound -- that's a deeply pessimistic thing to hear.

KEVORKIAN: But it's very sensible.

My mother went through the Armenian holocaust, genocide. She'd often say when she would sit at this table, you know, what kind of life is this? You know, life is wonderful if you've got a good life, if you're healthy and painless and all that. Ask somebody in Darfur or in Iraq or somewhere, ask somebody if he wants to be -- if his -- if life is beautiful.

GUPTA: So much of what happens in our lives we don't know -- we don't know what's around the next corner, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow.

KEVORKIAN: That's right.

GUPTA: So, for these two guys, again that you talk about, your friends who say they want to end it ...


GUPTA: ... do you tell them?

KEVORKIAN: But they've done everything in life.

GUPTA: They don't know what's tomorrow.

KEVORKIAN: There's no mission for their ...

GUPTA: Maybe they'll meet the love of their life tomorrow.

KEVORKIAN: Well, they have already met the love of their life. Their wife is dead. Everybody's life is different and that's why it's hard to judge.

I am for absolute autonomy, got that? There's nobody that's got more autonomy in mind than I have. That's what's wrong with this world in this life.

GUPTA: If you'd -- if you had some completely treatable disease yourself, that if you treated it, you would be fine. If you didn't treat it, you would die. What would you do?

KEVORKIAN: It depends on circumstances. When you're young, you know you're going to live forever and the world is wonderful and rosy. It's been propagandized to death. Everywhere you -- every institution, public institution has to do that to survive, has to be what's called optimistic. Well, I can train myself to be sort of pessimistic.

GUPTA: If you're pessimistic and you are in the type of business that you are in for a period of time, do you worry that somehow you might be imposing your world view on someone else who's desperate, who may be suffering, who may be in pain?

KEVORKIAN: No, I would never do that.

GUPTA: Is there some virtue in simply being alive?

KEVORKIAN: No. I always said all my life, if I wasn't born and they gave me the question, I'd say, I don't want to be born.


GUPTA: When we come back, what's next for Jack Kevorkian? What he says is his new mission in life. Stay with us.



KEVORKIAN: After six years, you say whoa. This is it. I'm never going to get out.

And at that time, you say, why go on? Then I was ill, weak and I thought my liver was going. And it was pretty hopeless.

And then I saw this little book on constitutional amendments. That's all it was about. I said, well, I don't know anything about those, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Squeeze. KEVORKIAN: I was flipping through it and I get through all the amendments. And I got to the ninth. Suddenly, a big bulb went on over my head. And I says, wow, I says, I didn't commit any crime.


GUPTA: What you're looking at is a clip there from a new documentary called "Kevorkian." It's about the man who led the movement for assisted suicide.

And here's more of our conversation.


GUPTA: What keeps you going?


GUPTA: What is the mission?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I got three of them. One, come out in the book in about a month and a half. A little book is coming out. We've kept it quiet. It ain't going to make me popular.

GUPTA: What is it?

KEVORKIAN: Well, that's -- that's one mission. One mission is to warn you about the disappearance of the species Homo sapiens because we're committing suicide.


GUPTA: Why are doomed?


GUPTA: Why are doomed?

KEVORKIAN: Well, I can't tell you now. (INAUDIBLE) read it.

GUPTA: What's the second mission?

KEVORKIAN: Number one, we've discussed. Number two, euthanasia.

GUPTA: Number one is going to make you really unpopular and we're all going to be doomed.

KEVORKIAN: The third one -- the third one ...

GUPTA: Number two is euthanasia. What's number three?

KEVORKIAN: Number three, our rights -- our human rights. We're born with them. Natural rights. Have you heard of the Ninth Amendment in the Constitution?

GUPTA: Sure. KEVORKIAN: I wrote this in prison.

GUPTA: Wrote this in prison?

KEVORKIAN: Yes. Ninth Amendment. Look at the back page.

GUPTA: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

KEVORKIAN: What's that say? Ninth Amendment says any right listed in this Constitution doesn't mean that you can deny -- get that word "deny" -- or disparage -- you know what that means -- others retained by the people. The law doesn't create a right. You're born with it. All the law does is stop you from using one, right?

GUPTA: Do you think they were wrong to send you to prison? Based on the laws of the land?

KEVORKIAN: They were wrong not according to their law -- they were OK according to their laws. But their laws were unconstitutional. Ninth Amendment. Whether euthanizing is -- oh, I never told you the medical term for that. It's Greek. Patholysis (ph).

GUPTA: For euthanasia?

KEVORKIAN: Yes. You know what it means, pathos ...

GUPTA: Disease.

KEVORKIAN: Or suffering.

GUPTA: And lysis (ph), get rid of.

KEVORKIAN: Get rid of it. Totally.

GUPTA: The ultimate way to get rid of disease or suffering is to?

KEVORKIAN: Of getting rid of suffering, real suffering, the ultimate way of getting rid of it is dying. That's the only way. You know, there's some pain you can't control with medicine. You know that? You know that.


GUPTA: When we come back, Dr. Kevorkian tells me new the one thing he does regret. Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

I've been talking with Dr. Jack Kevorkian. And one thing you might not know about him, he's a painter of fine arts. And before we finished the interview, I asked him about his dark, dark vision.


GUPTA: This is really, really morbid stuff.

KEVORKIAN: No, it's honest. It's fact.

GUPTA: What?

KEVORKIAN: It's fact. It's just unpleasant fact. See, this is the point -- people don't look at unpleasant aspects of life because they've been trained to look at the pleasant stuff. This is war.

GUPTA: This one ...

KEVORKIAN: This one is most popular among young people.

GUPTA: I saw that on the cover as well. (INAUDIBLE) That's how humans feel about dying, at least about their own deaths.

KEVORKIAN: Most people think about dying.

GUPTA: Is this what they envision? Is that what you're seeing yourself?

KEVORKIAN: Most people think of dying that way. Yes, sinking into the oblivion.

GUPTA: And all these other facing looking up at them.

KEVORKIAN: And sparing nothing, wearing your fingers to the bones to try to avoid it.

GUPTA: He wants to live.


GUPTA: He wants to live.

KEVORKIAN: He's a weakling.

GUPTA: You know, the last thing I really want to sort of ask you about, and how much of Jack Kevorkian has become sort of the caricature of Jack Kevorkian? How much of this is just because people expect you to behave a certain way?


GUPTA: Act a certain way?

KEVORKIAN: No, I'm acting freely now. I feel good acting this way. I'm not lying.

GUPTA: Is this the genuine?

KEVORKIAN: I'm not lying to myself like most people. And I thought -- I know my defects and my deficiencies. I know what life is like.

GUPTA: Any regrets about anything?


GUPTA: None?

KEVORKIAN: No. The only regrets I have is I could have treated my parents better and my sisters better, you know, it's personal relationships. But anything else I've done -- anything I've done publicly, especially since graduation, is all my doing. I take full blame.

GUPTA: Pleasure to meet you. It's an honor.

KEVORKIAN: Thank you.

GUPTA: I've always wanted to meet you.

KEVORKIAN: Oh, come on.

GUPTA: Seriously. I've wanted to meet you for a long time.


GUPTA: I can tell you, this was a day that made me think very hard about things, about what it means to be a doctor and what it means to help people. I hope it gives you something to think about as well.

Unfortunately, that does it for this edition of SGMD. If you want to see more of Jack Kevorkian, you can watch "Kevorkian," the documentary, the biography. It premiers on our sister network, HBO, June 28th. You can also watch more of this interview with Dr. Kevorkian at

And if you missed any part of today's show, be sure to check out my podcast at Thanks for watching.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. More news on CNN starts right now.