‘A Modern Inquisition’ by Dr. Jack Kevorkian

In 1994, Dr. Jack Kevorkian received the American Humanist Association’s “Humanist Hero Award.” At the AHA’s annual conference in Detroit that year, he gave the acceptance speech below (PDF). I’m reprinting an adapted version of it here, on the day of his own death at the age of 83.

This is probably the first time that this august body has been addressed by someone under indictment on two counts of first-degree murder.

I was ignorant of many things when I graduated from college. I was uneducated; maybe I still am. All I was trained for was a craft. I think that’s true of colleges generally in this country today — they train you for a craft. But everything of value I learned in my life I learned after college, on my own: philosophy, music… The one deficiency I have is literature; I’m very weak there.

So I wasn’t attuned, back then, to what life in our society is. I was put by fortune into this position, which has given me a real deep insight into what so-called civilized society is. And I learned one thing: that society is not civilized. And I learned another thing: that we are still deeply mired in the Dark Ages.

Superhighways crossing each other at several levels, color television sets and compact discs, these to me don’t indicate the height of civilization, and they don’t indicate enlightenment either — in fact, they’re dangerous tools of the Dark Ages.

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 am not a hero, either — by my definition, anyway. To me, anyone who does what should be done is not a hero. Heroes to me are very, very rare. 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.

To me, 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 an inevitable thing; in fact, it’s unavoidable as you mature. Children are honest — born perfectly honest — and slowly learn how to become dishonest. They are trained at it. 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 awhile. If everyone were perfectly honest at all times, if human nature were such that it could stand that, you would find many fewer problems in the world. I know that’s impractical. Maybe I’m a hopeless idealist. But at least that’s looking at the problem at its root. Children, by the way, can handle honesty. They swear and curse at each other, and it doesn’t affect them very much. But it’s difficult to be perfectly honest as an adult.

I never considered myself a humanist. I’m not a joiner. I never join any organization. And yet humanism, I think, is the closest to what I think is a good way of living in society.

What is the best rule for life? I often ask myself that. Some people will tell you that “the Golden Rule is the best.” Well, I don’t know — is it? We spout platitudes without thinking. We’re trained not to think, really; we’re trained to respond to platitudes. Education does that. I think education in this society is geared toward making sure you are well brainwashed by the time you are an adult.

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But that doesn’t always apply. What if I met a masochist or a sadist? You see, it wouldn’t work. I think the best rule for life is “Say and do what you wish, whenever you wish, so long as you do not harm another person or his or her property.” Does that sound right? Now if every adult human being acted that way, this would be a much better society. We may not have color television sets, and we may not have superhighways, but we would probably be a better society. We certainly wouldn’t have the Inquisition.

So all I’m doing is what a physician should do. I’m not really frightened by what’s happening to me; I’m not even intimidated. I’m annoyed! In fact, I’m reinforced in what I’m doing because of the opposition, which is so irrational.

By the way, this is not a one-man operation. I keep getting all the credit, and I don’t deserve it. I’ve got tremendous legal support in Geoffrey Fieger and Michael Swartz. You’d be amazed how much of a burden they relieve me of. I can’t think of anybody else who could do it the way Geoffrey does it, and he deserves as much credit as I. He handles all the legal aspects, which, as you know, are enormous, and gives me free rein on what I should do. Credit must also go to my sister Margo and to my other sister Flora, who’s now in Europe. Margo and Flora were with me during the Janet Atkins case, and I must admit that I couldn’t have done it without them. I was very nervous — I was actually a little frightened — and they gave me great moral support. They were just as nervous as I, but they tried not to show it, which helped. I must also mention my other assistant, my medical technologist Neal Nichol. These people make up the nucleus of the group that deserves the credit; I’m just the figurehead here.

When we first started this work, we didn’t expect the explosion of publicity that followed. We tried to keep this low key. I have been accused of grandstanding, recklessness, and publicity seeking, all of which, of course, is not true. You must understand that the entire mainstream media, especially in the first year or two, were totally against what I’m doing. Entirely! It was unanimous. They 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 which cuts across many disciplines — the entire editorial policy of the country is on one side? Doesn’t that strike you as strange? 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. Now, 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 — Pythagorean (pagan, by the way) — they don’t even mind that. 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 business person second, and a physician third.

The second reason that organized medicine is against physician-assisted voluntary euthanasia is because of the money involved. If a patient’s suffering is curtailed by three weeks, can you imagine how much that adds up to in the medical and health-care field? Let’s look at Alzheimer’s disease. They say, “Well, that’s not terminal.” Well, it is terminal. Any process that curtails natural life is a terminal disease; the duration of the terminal process is the only difference. Some cancers last a week in their terminal phase. Alzheimer’s disease is terminal. I understand that we have four million Alzheimer’s cases in this country. Let’s assume that one out of ten opts to end his or her life at a certain stage, just when it is getting bad. That’s 400,000 people depriving some nursing homes of perhaps four or five years of care for a vegetating human being. At $30,000 a year, multiplied by 400,000, times five years — you’re into billions of dollars. And that’s just one disease, and one out of ten people.

How about the pharmaceutical industry? A lot of drugs are used in those last several months and years of life, which also add up to billions and billions of dollars. So you can see why they are going to oppose this.

That’s what is so dismaying to me; that’s 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? It’s a perfect solution. We’re not going to tell the religious hospitals what to do; they can perform any insanity they wish. But what they can’t do is impose that insanity on the rest of us. The doctors who work in those 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. Does that make sense? And that changes. Notice I added “at the time.”

Religion claims to have eternal truths; philosophy, too. I’m not singling out religion; you’ve got idiotic philosophy as well. You’ve got Kant with his unknowable realm. What sense does it make to hypothesize an unknowable realm? When you know it, there is no longer an unknowable realm. And if it’s unknowable, you’re never going to get there.

Ethics is saying and doing what is right at the time and that changes. Geoffrey and I use the example of coal as fuel. 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. Now we’re shocked at that, right? It’s all a matter of acculturation, time, where you are, and who you are. Now if I visited this primitive society and learned that they do that, 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 general gist of my position.

With Geoffrey at my side, I don’t fear this indictment for murder. In fact, everybody I’ve met just scratches their heads and laughs about it. These contemporary inquisitors have made a mockery of the judicial system in Michigan. This indictment has done one good thing, however: it brazenly manifests the depth of corruption within our society. And it’s not just the judiciary. Our legislature has manifested that as well with its silly law which it knew was unconstitutional. What kind of a legislature or government is it that would enact a so-called law it knew was unconstitutional? Can anybody get more depraved than that? Or more corrupt? Hardly. But that corruption permeates everything.

Our medical societies are just as corrupt; our medical boards are just as corrupt. I don’t have a license any more. Did that stop me from doing what a physician should do? No! You see, the licensure is not entirely to guarantee competence. In fact, I think that’s only a small part of what licensure is supposed to do. It guarantees absolute control. But they miscalculated on me. A piece of paper does not control me. They can’t take away my training, my experience, or what I want to do, what I feel is right. They miscalculated, and now their anger knows no bounds. That is why they are behaving the way they are. That is why you are seeing so much negative press. They are desperate now, and that makes them dangerous. When anyone becomes that desperate, they are dangerous, and I recognize the danger.

So you see, in effect, our society is no different than primitive society — or Nazi Germany. People easily forget that. We pride ourselves in this country and the Western world, saying, “We’re really enlightened and we’re different.” No, we’re still totalitarian to a great degree.

And I’m afraid it’s getting worse. When they added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, they stepped in the wrong direction. When you get your feet mired in quicksand like that, you cannot extract them very easily. This society is thrashing around now. And you know what happens when you thrash around in quicksand. I am not optimistic at all.

It took two-and-a-half centuries for the Catholic church to apologize to Galileo, and you can bet it is going to take something like that long for any apology to come for what we are doing today. If an apology comes at all!

I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but I appreciate this opportunity to address you all. I thank you for your support. We are very much encouraged by it. We will keep going.

This speech was taken from the November/December, 1994 issue of The Humanist.

(Reprinted with permission of the American Humanist Association.)

  • Shawn

    Thanks for reposting this. I was three when this was first written/spoken, and probably never would have gotten the chance to read it. There is something sad and profound here.

  • Stogoe

    Rambling old man rambles about kids these days and newfangled technology like their compact discs and color televisions. Film at 11.

  • Jordan

    “maturity [is] the inability to be shocked”

    Whoa. New words to live by. Thanks for posting this. It’s incredibly insightful.

    Kevorkian’s last interview was with Ron Bennington from Ron and Fez about a year ago. They posted the audio and a summary today. I implore anybody who read the speech above to listen to the interview.

  • OregoniAn

    Excellent post. Dr. Kevorkian would never accept the title, but he actually was a hero. He knowingly sacrificed what would have been a very comfortable life in order to further the cause of individual freedom for the rest of us.

    He helped pave the way for my home states Death with Dignity act. Approved (narrowly) by public vote in 1994, Oregonians like myself have control over end of life decisions should we be faced with a terminal illness. Not that anyone likes to think about it, but it’s a freedom I cherish.

    An attempt to repeal the act in 1997 was voted down by a wider margin. Proving conclusively to me that if you ask an Oregonian to vote on the same thing twice – you will get the finger.

    The Bush administration challenged us in 2005. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court gave them the finger as well.

    Sad to see that only three states, and very few other enlightened pockets around the globe place human dignity above the greed of the medical industrial complex, the weakness of governments, and – of course – the influence of religions.

  • Nathaniel

    I read it until he started talking about how children are born completely honest, and have to be taught to be deceptive.

    Sorry, that’s total bullshit. Among the things he learned, apparently developmental psychology wasn’t one of them. Children try to deceive from a very young age. The notion that they don’t is sentimental bullshit.

  • http://www.atheistunderworld.com Ben Tegland

    Physician assisted suicide is one of the things I never thought I would change my mind about. I remember debating it in a high school speech class. Back then, the idea of someone choosing to be injected with the drugs and end things on their own terms seemed so evil. After being taught to believe suicide = hell, I thought Dr. Death was sending people to the pit.

    I like what you said about giving people dignity.

    Also what Jack said in his speech about the drug/medical industry keeping vegetative around and milking them for every last buck was eye opening. Thank you for re-posting this.

  • Nordog

    I used to define maturity as the inability to be shocked.

    This is either silly and untrue, or maturity is not necessarily a good thing.

    Are not there things in life at which we should be shocked?

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Thank you Jack, RIP.

  • Jennifer

    Dr. Jack is one of my personal heroes.

  • Matt H

    I mostly agree with everything said, although I think I concur with Nathaniel’s critique related to honesty and developmental psychology. However, not being well versed in developmental psychology myself, I’m not confident about taking a confident stand on that point.

  • http://Whowilldefendgod? John D

    People are not ready to think like Jack. I agree with much of what he has to say in this speech. The actual facts about how people die in the modern world are so strange and distorted that we can hardly discuss it openly.

    Doctors kill their patents regularly, but it is done with strangely clouded speech and a perverse philosophy. When my mother-in-law was slowly dying in the hospital the docs kept her alive on a ventilator, loaded on morphine, and dosed with massive anti-biotics. Everyone who went in the room to see her had to wear a mask and gloves but not to protect the patient. You see, as you slowly die, your body get so infected you are a risk to even be touched. The dying people in the hospital are often infected with anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria. but… my mother-in-law was scared to die. She refused to give a no resuscitate order and told everyone that the docs must do “everything possible”. She did not realize how she would be tortured because of this request. Finally, after weeks of a slow steady decile, with her body covered in sores and infection covering her body the doctor used the “magic” code word. He told my wife that he could “make her more comfortable”. This means that they will give a massive dose of pain killer that will cause the body to stop functioning. A few moments after they “made her comfortable” she died in a drug induced stupor, unable to communicate or even move her eyes.

    Jack, and every other doctor who works with the dying, knows how this story plays out every day. Yes Jack… we are barbarians!

  • wilsim

    I was 15 or 16 when the “Dr Death” story was all over the news. I remember i was shocked and offended that he was helping people to kill themselves. Until i read more about it and realized he wasn’t forcing those decisions on the oldsters. It was a decision they were making for themselves and he was just helping them fulfill it. Then i became offended that “the law” kept trying to put Dr. Kevorkian behind bars for helping people meet the end of their own lives on their own terms.

    He made a really hard decision to risk his personal freedom and his chance at a comfortable life in order to help people who were in no position to help themselves.

    Maybe its a bit of confabulation but i feel as if i have always been on his side. Remembering my younger years, i think the entire death with dignity debate was one of the major stepping stones of my life that led me down the path to secular reasoning and atheism. I was shocked that so many people in my family and my social circles felt that they had the right, and could make better choices, about someone else’s life and body. People that i thought were good and moral people showed their ethics were set in concrete and they could not reason past the pages of the bible. To them, suicide, assisted or not, was wrong, as evil as murder in all circumstances.

    I agree with his point about parts of society still being stuck in the dark ages. We humans, collectively, are petty, cruel, and barbarous… and not just to one another but to almost all living things on this planet. We like to think it belongs to us, that the world is our inheritance, the living creatures our birthright, and that we can do with our planet what we will. I hope we learn to live within our means before it is too late.

  • Dark Jaguar

    The doc here really is a hero, and I support a person’s right to choose their own death in the case that there is no reasonable chance for continued functional life. (I do personally reject suicide in pretty much any other case, as treating depression is a much better choice, and a lot of those choosing it at a young age just aren’t mature enough to see what else there is. I would likely want someone to stop a building jumper, at least because talking to them about wanting to end it all when they aren’t in the middle of a break down is a lot more effective than platitudes and just leaving it up to them at the moment of greatest need. That is a totally different case than this though, and it took some time for me to realize that. In other words, someone who’s every waking moment is pain, and no current treatment will resolve it? Let them decide if they want to stick it out or if they simply want some peace. Someone who’s suicidal because they are constantly being attacked for being gay at school or something like that? Get them some help and take out the source of their anguish by punishing the bullies responsible. It shouldn’t be a hard call between the two.)

    So all that said, I still have to say that a lot of that speech triggered my “bullshit detector”. His rant about medicinal conspiracies in particular rang of a “big pharma” stench. He’s a good person doing what he does, and speaks eloquently in defense of it, but his views on other matters seem to be rather clouded.

  • TFM

    I agree with Dark Jaguar, supporting assisted suicide for the kinds of cases Kevorkian assisted in, but not just any time a depressed person wants to end it all. I also had the same reaction to the part about “organized medicine” and “organized money” opposing assisted suicide because prolonging end of life suffering is a cash cow. That sounds too much to me like science bashers who are convinced that Big Pharma conspires to prevent (or suppress) cures to big diseases because treating them is so lucrative. It’s easy to mistake some consequence of someone’s position (good or bad) as their motivation, but it’s often a good way to insult them and shut down any dialogue on the issue that might otherwise happen. If there’s any hope or intention of bringing the opposition around to our way of thinking, it won’t help to treat them like they’re just in to prolonged suffering for the money.

  • ludovico

    The Kevorkian affair was life imitating art in a way: check out the way Edward G. Robinson’s character dies at the end of Soylent Green–he, of sound mind and body, goes to a center where he lies down on a bed, takes a potion [like Socrates and hemlock], and watches projected images of natural beauty while listening to Beethoven. In a few minutes, it’s all over–on his terms–and societally sanctioned. What a great way to go! [Minus all the [SPOILER ALERT] “Soylent Green is people” stuff though!]

  • Demonhype

    I could see the “don’t commit suicide/assist suicide for the depressed” if we had universal health care, maybe. But so many people are treated for depression by becoming dependent on expensive prescription drugs. I’m depressed and suicidal (since I was thirteen, though I learned on my own how to contain it it often breaks to the surface these days), a lot of that is because I’m broke and only partially employed after a three-year dry period of no employment and a year of spotty seasonal PT. That added expense is not going to help matters and will make it worse. I’ve been told I “need” to be on anti-depressants. I said that what I need is to have gainful employment and a future that doesn’t look iffy at best and grim at worst. They say that I have no power to fix anything in my life and I “need” to bury myself in medication and their accompanying expense. For my own part, I would rather be dead.

    Gotta love the attitude though–you can’t stop the evil so don’t even try, things will never get better and your life will only suck worse and worse but suicide is out of the question, so all you can do is dope yourself up, surround yourself with even more bills, and ride it all into the inevitable nuclear holocaust. Plus, the insistence that I wouldn’t be depressed if only I could embrace the virtuous apathy they have come to live in and just stop caring about how the obscenely wealthy corporate assholes are destroying everything for their own gain.

    Same goes for other “treatable if you have the money” diseases. I would not want to go on living if the only way I could stabilize myself is by further enrichening a lot of dishonest businessmen and digging myself an even deeper hole. It’s bad enough that you have to be constantly under a doctor’s care, beholden to a doctor for your life every single day, getting regular exams and treatments, perhaps some painful crap, and I don’t know if I’d be interested in that either. But I sure as hell am not interested in going through that and then having to go into massive debt for it. Thanks, but no thanks. Bring in UHC and then maybe we’ll talk.

    What I’m rambling about here is that they are creating a society that creates and promotes depression (not everyone is genetically depressed, you know, a lot of times it is triggered by external shit) and then getting rich by “treating” it with pills while resisting making the important changes that could keep these poor souls from becoming so depressed in the first place. Same as his comment about the medical establishment getting rich by bleeding every last penny out of an already dying person in a vegetative state. These fuckers caused the circumstances in our society that made me depressed, I am not going to pay them to give me a pill to magically made me numb to it.

  • Brian

    As an old man who plans to die by his own hand (barring a stroke or massive heart attack), I always loved Kevorkian, a very great humanitarian.

  • http://appledore.tumblr.com Nicole

    Children try to deceive from a very young age. The notion that they don’t is sentimental bullshit.

    I didn’t get the impression that he was talking about deception when he talked about honesty, but rather lack of a filter. Children will tell you what they’re thinking without a second thought, they’re honest with themselves about how they feel, and they’re honest with everyone else about how they feel.

    Will they like to get things they want? Of course. Kids are little shits, you have to teach them not to be. But they are very honest in that there’s very little filter between their brains and their mouths, they don’t censor themselves based on what they think other people want to hear, not without being taught to do so via socialization.

  • http://www.homschlr4ever-loveandlunchmoney.com Homschlr4ever

    I have always applauded Dr. Kevorkian’s stand and his ability to remain committed against all odds. It is irrelevant that you agree or disagree with his ideals. He supported the individuals right to make up their own mind.Why is it okay for me to decide to alter the look of my body by medical means and yet not all right for me to decide that my life has come to an end? I choose not to believe in a higher being so the only mandate I have for these types of decisions is what is best for me and for my family. No one else has that right. And they certainly don’t the authority based on their belief in a god that they can’t prove exists.

  • Lynda

    I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard this story but I do remember thinking that it wasn’t as evil as people thought (growing up in a Catholic family made it so that these opinions could never be voiced). However what resonated with me the most about this speech was the fact that he is right we cannot be honest anymore. We lie constantly and self help books only tell us to lie more so that one day we’ll believe it. Some see corruption in a case such as this but look around and see the mental corruption that plagues us all. Its sad that the ones who lie the best make it the furthest in this world and no one seems to notice.


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