Real heroes seldom look like gods or goddesses, and all of them are deeply flawed. So it is with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a hero of mine.
In the battle with forces of religious authoritarianism for control over our own bodies, the right to die as we choose and when we choose is as important as the right of women to control their own reproductive process. If we can’t manage for ourselves such basic and important decisions as birth and death and the fate of our own body, then we have no meaningful rights at all. Jack Kevorkian, after a lifetime of careful, brilliant medical research and compassionate medical care, came to see that principle clearly and had the courage to act on it.
His determination so threatened the religious dogmatists that they relentlessly pursued him through the courts and the media, where he was vilified as “Dr. Death” and accused of preying on the sick and weak for his own perverted pleasure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kevorkian is a kind, decent, caring and compassionate man who understands that we, as independent and free human beings, should at the very least have the right to make the most critical decision of our lives – when to die. He is also brash, outspoken to the point of rudeness, and egotistical to the point of being self-destructive.
Finally convicted and imprisoned, Kevorkian served nearly ten years before winning early release. He lost his medical license and with that the right to practice, his most enduring passion, along with his money and his property. All of that, so the religious authorities who control medicine can maintain their stranglehold over people’s most basic rights.
Kevorkian asserts, truthfully, that religion and the practice of medicine have always been intertwined, from the days of shamans muttering in caves with magic herbs and incantations through medieval hospitals run by religious orders, when doctors served at the whim of priests and nuns and prayer was considered on a par with still-primitive physician’s nostrums. In the modern era, where we have finally broken through magical thinking to start delivering medical care based on solid knowledge and scientific principles, the power of religious authority has yet to be broken. Through relentless imposition of laws based on claims of godly authority that seek to regulate when women may conceive, that try to force them to endure the rigors and dangers of childbirth against their will, and that condemn the terminally ill to extended periods of useless agony and torment, the unchallengeable authority of ancient shamanism continues unabated.
Kevorkian challenged all that, and paid for it dearly. But now his true story is being told, and perhaps the American public will be able to grasp the sincerity and great purpose behind his decisions. Starring Al Pacino, “You don’t know Jack” is an HBO film premiering tonight. The movie recites Kevorkian’s story, warts and all, for the freedom fight it really is. The supporting cast is outstanding including Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Brenda Vaccaro, Danny Houston and many others. If you don’t have HBO, find a friend, organize a crowd, bring a casserole and have a “Dr. Death” party. Somehow, spread the word. This work is, if ever there was, must-watch TV.
What the forces of religious authoritarianism did to Kevorkian, and through him to each of us, is a chilling and frightening tale. It should terrify and mobilize liberals, libertarians and conservatives alike, and raises a point on which all of us should agree: The state has no business in our personal lives, and certainly no business telling us when we can end them.