What do you think about this film being made about you?
Well, I consider it an honor, of course. The attention and all is nice, but it's not as important to me as it would have been if I were younger. Before, just meeting a movie star was something. To have one playing me, I'd just say "Wow." When you're older you've seen it all, and you take more in stride.
And how do you feel about Al Pacino playing you?
You know, the guy who is playing you?
Oh yeah, him. [laughs] I saw my associate Neal Nicol's shuffling through these black-and-white photos and I was sure that one was me. I was shocked when he told me it was Al Pacino. He did such a good job. He looked more like me than I do.
In the film, it seems that many more people requested your help than actually ended up receiving it. Is that an accurate representation?
Oh yeah. I would say I only treated one out of every five or ten. I didn't keep count. But the ones I talked to were helped too. They felt better. And they were relieved of their anxiety and fear, because they knew there was a guy they could go and talk to, and he'd even do it for them. That made people feel at ease, and they went on living and died naturally. That's the value of this thing. See?
What kind of service are you providing?
It's a medical service -- not political, not legal -- medical. You don't have law or politics telling you how to do a heart transplant, do you? The American Medical Association is the problem. It opposes euthanasia, comparing it to a criminal act. They called me a criminal, publicly. And they thought I should be harshly punished. They're the problem. I was fighting big money -- fighting a pharmaceutical industry that made billions on people who are dying. I was fighting a legal structure, governments, legislatures, all with billions and billions of dollars to protect. No wonder they want it kept illegal. See? They don't care about human suffering.
Ours will be the last English-speaking country to declare euthanasia as a legal right -- even though it's in the Constitution. The Ninth Amendment says that even if a right isn't listed in the Constitution, that doesn't mean it isn't owned by the people.
How do people react when they recognize you?
Oh, perfect strangers have tears in their eyes when they come up to me. I've had grown men in their forties and fifties cross a busy street just to come over to shake my hand. The best one was when I was in prison. I noticed a family, visiting with their loved ones. And this woman came over slowly and said "May I hug you?" I stood up and she hugged me, which was forbidden. You couldn't get out of your chair. But no one said a word. It happens every day when I walk down the street, people come up and say, "You're doing great, keep it going, keep helping us." They say, "You're courageous." No, I'm not. I'm only doing what I'm supposed to do. St. Augustine and Plato both said it. You shouldn't thank somebody for doing the right thing; that's his duty.
So you see this as a duty?
A doctor's duty is to relieve the suffering of an agonized patient when he can't be cured. And the same goes for mental disease. There are some people who are agonized with mental disease all their lives and nothing helps them. Nothing. What do you do? Do you keep them going because a body is supposed to be sacred? You can't do that. We delude ourselves by calling ourselves sacred. I don't feel sacred, do you? We didn't study sanctity in medical school. It has nothing to do with medicine. When a sick, agonized patient comes to you as a doctor, it's your duty to help him or her. Duty. Forget everything else, and if your religion interferes with that, you're in the wrong profession. You ought to be a priest.
Does most of the opposition come from religious pressure?
A lot of people oppose me because of religion. There are also some people who are crippled and think that we're going to force them to go through this as well. It's your choice. Why would you want to fight against your own right? They're insane. They've been driven insane by some type of propaganda. See?
Have people's attitudes towards euthanasia changed since your time in prison?
I think so. The people are demanding it now in six countries -- England, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Italy and France. The medical profession is still against it, as are the governments. But, you know, in 1936, King George V had bad pneumonia and was suffering. Before antibiotics, this was a death sentence. At the time there was a very famous doctor, a member of Parliament named Lord Dawson. The royal family approached him and asked if he could help the king end his suffering. Get that. The royal family requested a crime to be committed against the king. And he did. He injected the king, ending his life and his suffering. If it's good enough for a king, isn't it good enough for a garbage collector?
Have you noticed any change in attitude in this country?
Ours will be the last English-speaking country to declare euthanasia as a legal right -- even though it's in the Constitution. The Ninth Amendment says that even if a right isn't listed in the Constitution, that doesn't mean it isn't owned by the people. You're born with natural rights. Women always had the right to vote. They always had the right to an abortion. It was just illegal. In the same way, you have the right for euthanasia. You have the right to kill yourself.
What was it like being in jail?
Well, it wasn't that hard, because I knew I wasn't a criminal. Most of the inmates and guards supported me. Some of them actually protected me. They knew I wasn't a criminal, and they knew what I did wasn't a crime. Everybody knows it. If a veterinarian did for an animal what I was doing for humans, he wouldn't go to prison. Imagine, "You can't put this dog down. His body is sacred."
Not one of my patients had a fear of death -- not one. They welcomed it. "Let's get going," they'd say. We've been inculcated religiously that death is a big enemy. It's part of nature!
Is it possible that people don't understand death until they or someone dear to them is close to it?
You know, when you get to that stage, you lose your fear of death. Not one of my patients had a fear of death -- not one. They welcomed it. "Let's get going," they'd say. We've been inculcated religiously that death is a big enemy. It's part of nature! You are all gonna die! What's wrong with it? You just go into nothingness! Big deal! You came from nothingness, was it so bad?
Were they afraid of anything?
They were afraid of going on suffering, absolutely. Every person will come to that eventually, if he lives long enough. If you are lucky, you may die by accident. Then you didn't go through all the agony; you went through a little bit of it suddenly. But for everybody who lives to the end, your body functions shut down, someone has to take care of you, bathe you, turn you over, put you on the toilet... It's demeaning. And then you realize what value there is in this right. It's one of the most valuable rights we have. You have the right to kill yourself any time, suicide. You own your body, nobody else.
What was it like when you first started doing these assisted suicides? Did you realize the story would become so huge?
I had no idea. I was going to write up an article on it, which I knew I couldn't publish in the United States. All the hullabaloo started with the first case. I had a cardiogram going to show exactly when the patient's heart had stopped. A layman can't do that. It was a medical procedure. When we finished, my two sisters and I stopped for coffee on the side of the Dixie Highway, and I remember saying, "A few more cases and I can write a new article on this and raise some awareness." That was all I wanted, but when I got home, my phone would not stop ringing. And then I realized what I had stepped into. The next morning I saw my face and picture on every newspaper, every TV channel -- it became a whirlwind.
Were people interested in your methods?
What caught people's fancy was the device I had created. I figured if I inject directly, they are going to throw me in for murder. So I made a device that works automatically -- the patient hits the button that starts it going. It took me a couple of weeks to go to some flea markets and pick up the odds and ends to put it together.
And what was the name of the device?
It was called the Thanatron or the Mercitron, but that doesn't matter. It should have no name at all, really. I don't call it "euthanasia" anymore, either. "Euthanasia" and "assisted suicide" are negative lay terms, not medical ones. "Euthanasia" means "good death." They talk about death, but nothing about ending suffering. So I coined the Greek term for "ending suffering" -- "patholysis." That's what it should be called.