Jack Kevorkian talks back
The Inquisition is still alive and well. The only difference is that today it's much more dangerous and subtle. The inquisitors don't burn you at the stake anymore; they slowly sizzle you. They make sure you pay dearly for what you do. In fact, they kill you often in a subtle way. My situation is a perfect example of it.
This is not self-pity, understand. I don't regret the position I'm in. I'm not a hero, either -- by my definition, anyway. To me, anyone who does what should be done is not a hero. And I still feel that I'm only doing what I, as a physician, should do. A license has nothing to do with it; I am a physician and therefore I will act like a physician whenever I can. That doesn't mean that I'm more compassionate than anyone else, but there is one thing I am that many aren't and that's honest.
The biggest deficiency today and the biggest problem with society is dishonesty. It underlies almost every crisis and every problem you can name. It's almost inevitable; in fact, it's unavoidable as you mature. We feel that a little dishonesty greases the wheels of society, that it makes things easier for everybody if we lie a little to each other. But all this dishonesty becomes cumulative after a while. If everyone were perfectly honest at all times, if human nature could stand that, you would find many fewer problems in the world.
When we (my lawyers, sisters, medical technologist, and myself) first started this work [physician-assisted voluntary euthanasia], we didn't expect the explosion of publicity that followed. The mainstream media tried to make my work look very negative -- they tried to make me look negative -- so that they could denigrate the concept we're working on. They said I should not be identified with the concept, yet they strived to do just that. They insulted and denigrated me and then hoped that it would spill over onto the concept. It didn't work, however; according to the polls, people may be split 50-50 on what they think of me, but they are three-to-one in favor of the concept, and that's never changed.
Now isn't it strange that on a controversial subject of this magnitude -- one that cuts across many disciplines -- the entire editorial policy of the country is on one side? Even on a contentious issue like abortion, there is editorial support for both sides. And our issue -- death with dignity -- as far as we're concerned, is simpler than abortion. So why is every mainstream editorial writer and newspaper in the country against us on this? Not one has come out in wholehearted support of us, even though public opinion is on our side.
As I surmise it, they're in a conspiracy, which is not a revelation to many people. But with whom? Well, let's take a look at who's against this: organized religion, organized medicine, and organized big money. That's a lot of power.
Why is organized medicine against this? For a couple of reasons, I think. First, because the so-called profession -- which is no longer a profession; it's really a commercial enterprise and has been for a long time -- is permeated with religious overtones. The basis of so-called medical ethics is religious ethics. The Hippocratic oath is a religious manifesto. It is not medical. Hippocrates didn't write it; we don't know who did, but we think it's from the Pythagoreans. So if you meet a physician who says 'Life is sacred,' be careful. We didn't study sanctity in medical school. You are talking to a theologian first, probably a businessperson second, and a physician third.
The second reason that organized medicine is against physician-assisted voluntary euthanasia is the money involved. If a patient's suffering is curtailed by three weeks, can you imagine how much that adds up to in medical care? And a lot of drugs are used in the last several months and years of life, which add up to billions of dollars for the pharmaceutical industry.
This is what is so dismaying to me, what makes me cynical. You have to be cynical in life when you read about a situation that's so terrible and so incorrigible. There are certain ways to deal with it: you can go along with it, which is hard to do; you can go insane, which is a refuge (and some do that); or you can face it with deep cynicism. I've opted for cynicism.
In responding to the religious issues, I ask this: Why not let all the religious underpinnings of medicine apply only to the ethics of religious hospitals and leave the secular hospitals alone? The doctors who work in religious hospitals can refuse to do abortions, they can refuse assisted suicide or euthanasia, they can do anything they want. But they have no right to impose what they call a universal medical ethic on secular institutions.
Besides, what is ethics? Can you define it? My definition is simple: Ethics is saying and doing what is right, at the time. And that changes. Seventy-five years ago, if I told you that for Christmas I was going to have a truck deliver 10 tons of coal to your house, you would have been delighted. If I told you that today, you would be insulted. Doing the right thing changes with time.
That's true of human society also. There is a primitive society -- I don't know which one exactly -- whose members were shocked to learn that we embalm our dead, place them in boxes, and then bury them in the ground. Do you know what they do? They eat them. To them, it's ethical and moral and honorable to devour the corpse of your loved one. We're shocked at that, right? It's all a matter of acculturation, time, where you are, and who you are. If I visited this primitive society and I was a real humanist, I'd say, 'Oh, that's interesting.' And if the so-called savage in turn said 'Gee, that's interesting what you do,' then he or she would be a humanist. I used to define maturity as the inability to be shocked. So I guess in some ways we're still immature. But if you're truly mature, and a true humanist, you can never be shocked. If they eat their dead, so be it -- that's their culture. But you know what our missionaries did, don't you? That's immoral action.
I think you get the gist of my position.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a proponent of physician-assisted voluntary euthanasia, received the 1994 Humanist Hero Award from the American Humanist Association. The adaptation of his speech from which this excerpt is taken appeared in The Humanist (Nov./Dec. 1994).
Subscriptions: $24.95/yr. (6 issues) from 7 Harwood Dr., Box 1188, Amherst, NY 14226-7188. Back issues: $5.50 from same address.