A Modern Inquisition

This is probably the first time that this august body [The American
Humanist Association 1994] has been addressed by someone under
indictment on two counts of first-degree murder.

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

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
(Nov./Dec. 1994).

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