If Derek Humphry and his growing number of followers have their way, doctors could play a new role in our culture. In addition to fighting disease and providing care, they could end lives-on purpose. They could inject patients with lethal doses of drugs and stand by while the drugs take effect, making certain that the patient dies comfortably.
Humphry, founder of the National Hemlock Society, believes in active euthanasia-the mercy killing of people suffering the final stages of painful terminal illnesses. It is understandable that some people believe active euthanasia is a euphemism for murder-and that Humphry is a murderer.
Western culture has almost always viewed death as an enemy and has waged a vigorous war against it. Not surprisingly, we have only postponed the inevitable. With advanced surgical techniques, modern machines, medicines and nutrition, life expectancy has increased 40 percent in the past three generations.
There is, however, a price to be paid for longer lives-and often that price is a longer death. Nearly 2,000,000 Americans die each year of terminal illnesses. Many deaths are painful, and sometimes dying people spend their last months-or even years-in hospitals or nursing homes, barely conscious. Until recently, it has been illegal for doctors to allow patients to die, even if the patients demanded it.
Slowly, those laws have changed. Many states now allow passive euthanasia-the withholding of medical treatment and life-support machines when death is imminent-if the patient has made clear his or her desire beforehand in writing, through a document called a living will. The American Hospital Association now estimates that 70 percent of the 6000 daily deaths in the United States are "somehow timed or negotiated, with all concerned parties privately concurring on withdrawal of some death-delaying technology or not even starting it in the first place."
Active euthanasia is another matter, both legally and morally. A loved one or a doctor who actively assists a person in dying, even at the patient's request, is guilty of a felony.
Derek Humphry is attempting to change that. Humphry, who grew up in a broken home in Bath, Somerset, about 90 miles from London, was writing muckraking articles and books on racism and politics when his wife of 22 years contracted a progressively debilitating form of cancer. After doctors told Jean Humphry that she had no chance of surviving, she asked her husband to help her end her life, claiming she wanted to avoid a protracted and painful death.
In late 1975, at her request, Humphry handed his wife a cup of sweetened coffee in which he had stirred a mixture of codeine and Seconal. An hour later she was dead.
No one but the family and a few close friends knew the truth about Jean's death until three years later, when Humphry released "Jean's Way," a memoir he had written with his second wife, Ann Wickett Humphry. The book told, in candid and moving detail, about Jean's decision to commit suicide. It also revealed Humphry's complicity in her death.
"Jean's Way" touched, a nerve. The story had universal implications. There were, apparently, hundreds of thousands of people who, like Jean, believed that an assisted suicide was the compassionate answer to a long and arduous death. Many of them wanted the option for themselves.
As a result, Humphry founded the Hemlock Society in 1980. The society is famous for two things: working to change laws so that doctors can legally help terminally ill patients commit suicide and giving advice to people who have decided to die on their own, when doctors can't or won't help.
The Hemlock Society tried to introduce legislation in California and Washington State that would legalize assisted suicide. Fiercely opposed by the Catholic Church, anti-euthanasia groups and former Surgeon General Everett Koop, the measures were defeated.
Another group, Californians Against Human Suffering, is trying again. Californians will vote in November on whether to make it legal for doctors to help terminally ill patients-those who would likely be dead within six months-to kill themselves.
Elsewhere, a controversial Detroit physician named Jack Kevorkian has made some headlines of his own. Unwilling to wait for legislation allowing him to legally help people commit suicide, Dr. Kevorkian-with his suicide machine-has assisted in several deaths over the past few years.
Kevorkian avoided prosecution until early this year when he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder for helping two ailing women in Michigan die. Although Kevorkian's fate now rests with the court, he has continued to aid suicides.
As ethicists, physicians and politicians debate the implications of Kevorkian's actions, Humphry remains in the forefront of the euthanasia movement. One of his most recent books is the movement's bible. "Final Exit," released in 1991, is nothing short of the last self-help book you'll ever need. In no-nonsense prose (and also in large type, for elderly readers), the book is a primer that tells readers the best way to kill themselves, including a detailed list of effective drugs and dosages.
The reaction to the book was startling. It flew off bookstore shelves and settled at the top of the best-seller lists. It also caused a new wave of debate on the issue of legalizing assisted suicide. Humphry expounded on the issues in a follow-up released in May, "Dying with Dignity: Understanding Euthanasia," about the emotional and ethical aspects of the assisted-suicide issue.
As if those books were not controversial enough, Humphry's messy personal life became the center of a scandal. Last year, Humphry was publicly accused of being a fraud, an opportunist and, finally, a murderer. What gave the charges impact was that the accuser was neither an anti-euthanasia activist nor a religious zealot but Humphry's ex-wife, Ann (they had divorced the year before).
In People magazine and on TV talk shows, Ann Humphry claimed that her ex-husband was cruel and manipulative. Despite his image as a man who had compassion for the dying, Ann charged that Humphry abandoned her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and that he tried everything he could to convince her to kill herself. Ultimately, Ann did commit suicide, and she saved her most serious accusation for her suicide note. "[Humphry] is a killer. I know," she wrote. She claimed that Humphry lied about the circumstances of his first, wife's death and charged that he had suffocated Jean with a pillow.
Beleaguered by the press, Humphry took out a half-page ad in The New York Times several weeks after Ann's death-ostensibly as a eulogy to his ex-wife. In it he wrote that Ann was "dogged by emotional problems." His attempts to exonerate himself didn't satisfy his critics, however, and some observers felt that Humphry was about to make his final exit-at least professionally.
To cast light on the debate over euthanasia and to unravel Humphry's personal drama that was making the assisted-suicide controversy even murkier, Playboy sent Contributing EditorDavid Sheffto interview the man at the center of the storm. Here's his report:
"I headed into the interview expecting some sort of monster, as Humphry was described in numerous press accounts. I was particularly bothered by the uncanny number of euthanasia cases he had been involved in. All of us, particularly as we grow older, lose parents and friends-but Humphry had actively assisted in the suicides of three family members, participated in the passive euthanasia of a fourth-and his second wife committed suicide. It was circumstantial evidence, but it was still weird.
"In a series of meetings in San Francisco, where Humphry was consulting with organizers of Californians Against Human Suffering who were pushing for assisted-suicide legislation, and at the Hemlock Society's national headquarters in Oregon, I continued to eye him suspiciously, dissecting his answers, testing his sincerity and looking for holes in his story.
"When his face reddened and he broke down in tears-for the first of several times during the interview-I was distrustful. The emotion seemed genuine, but I feared it was rehearsed. He cried when he talked about his wife, Jean, his brother's death and the hell he had gone through with his second wife, Ann.
"The jury may still be out on some of the charges against Humphry, but my cynicism lessened. I concluded that his tears were genuine and that he was sincerely committed to his mission. But I'm not sure I would want him to be the executor of my living will."
DS: Since 1988 the Hemlock Society has worked to make it legal for doctors to assist in suicides-and its latest attempt is on the California ballot this November-but so far all efforts have failed. Isn't that proof that people are uncomfortable with legalizing assisted suicide?
DH: The measures have failed for a number of reasons, but not because the public doesn't want them. More than eighty percent of Americans believe in passive euthanasia. Sixty percent believe in active euthanasia. It looked as if we were going to win in Seattle. Our movement was galvanized.
DS: But you lost.
DH: The Catholic Church, in an attempt to stop euthanasia, threw all its great power and money into defeating us. Also, we made several mistakes. The Washington law was painted with a broad brush. There were not enough restrictions on physicians-the public doesn't trust the medical profession. The newspapers, when they refused to endorse us, said there were insufficient protections against abuses by doctors.
The other thing that happened was that notorious Dr. Kevorkian. About ten days before the vote, he helped two women to die in Michigan. It was very disturbing because it was doubtful that the women were terminally ill. They were sick women and they wanted to die and Kevorkian felt he was doing the right thing, but there was a wave of revulsion against him. I suspect that he timed it to have an effect on the election. He had dropped hints that he was going to help someone die just before the vote in Washington. We had heard rumors about it and one of our staff went to him and begged him not to do it. He ignored the request.
DS: That's a serious charge. Do you think his motive for helping them die was political rather than compassionate?
DH: Well, the two women clearly wanted to die and, so far as one can tell, the families were supportive of them. But I worry about the timing. Coincidentally or not, the week that happened his book appeared on the front page of Publishers Weekly. More significantly, his motivation for attempting to make it legal to assist in suicides is very different from ours. His is outlined in his book Prescription: Medicine. The first one hundred or so are devoted to traditional executions of murderers. Kevorkian gives a credible history of how societies throughout history have executed people. After that, he reveals his position: The only justification for the executions of murderers is if they agree to be experimented on before, during and after the execution and if their organs are harvested for people who need organ transplants.
Finally, he argues for suicide clinics for the terminally ill who would agree to be experimented on for medical reasons during and after dying. They would be anesthetized so there would be no suffering. That's where we differ. His argument for euthanasia is to get bodies for medical research. He says there's no point unless it's the advancement of medical science.
DS: Perhaps he helped people who wanted desperately to avoid suffering?
DH: That's right, and what they and Kevorkian do is their own business. I cannot advocate it, though.
DS: Why do people need the assistance of doctors to kill themselves? Why can't they simply ingest pills or slit their wrists or do all the other things thousands of suicides do each year?
DH: People are terrified of doing it wrong. The fear of waking up from a failed suicide attempt is one of the most deep-rooted fears people have. It's apparently a horrible experience.
DS: Because of the physical aftereffects or the embarrassment?
DH: All of it. Embarrassment, fear and the dread of having to go on suffering. There is the fear of the taboo of having done this.
DS: Where does the taboo come from? Is it based on Western religions' abhorrence of suicide?
DH: Yes, although history books show that suicide was acceptable for the first three or four hundred years of Christianity. It was not viewed as a crime against God. It wasn't encouraged, but it had its place.
The problem was that too many Christians were committing suicide. The lives of these poor, downtrodden people were awful and their religion promised a wonderful life out there in the next world. To stop them from killing themselves, the church made suicide a crime against God. It became a crime against the state later, because soldiers were killing themselves instead of fighting in wars they didn't believe in.
DS: The taboo is relatively recent?
DH: That's right. In Greece and Rome, some justifications for suicide were acceptable. In ancient Greece you had to go to court and tell why you wished to commit suicide. If the reasons met societal standards, the magistrate reached beneath his bench and gave you a cup of hemlock. The court looked after your affairs-it made sure that your wife got what money was due to you and that your debts were cleared.
DS: What were acceptable reasons for suicide?
DH: Nobody is actually certain, but it had to be either terminal illness or unbearable disgrace. If it was a cowardly act, running away from something, the magistrate would refuse the request.
DS: Do any contemporary religions accept suicide?
DH: Hindus accept a certain amount of suicide, especially in advanced age. It's usually done by starvation. In general, religions argue that only God gives life and only God can take it away. It all boils down to who's in command. Everybody has a different answer. If you're an atheist or an agnostic, the answer is yourself. If you are what I call a liberal, freethinking Christian, then it's between you and your God. Some feel that God is understanding and doesn't wish them to suffer. Therefore, if they took their life thoughtfully and carefully and didn't hurt other people, it would be all right. Other people see God as their commander, and to do this without His blessing would be appalling. The Catholics believe suffering is ennobling.
DS: Religion aside, you are going head to head with the essential goal of the medical community-to prolong life.
DH: That's another main reason there are laws against assisted suicide. On the other hand, many doctors feel that active euthanasia fulfills their other purpose-to ease suffering.
DS: Don't many doctors, in spite of the illegality of suicide, assist terminal and elderly patients who choose to kill themselves?
DH: Extensively. And it's increasing-the AIDS problem has shown us how much. We've found that assisted suicide is rampant in the gay community. I've heard that probably fifty percent of gay people dying from AIDS are assisted in their deaths by their friends and lovers or by a doctor.
DS: Are they assisted actively or passively?
DH: Very actively, by providing drugs and injecting or administering them. The cases we hear about are almost always people in their last few weeks. It is often done as a group. Three or four of the dying person's friends will gather at an hour he or she appoints. It is done as a way to retain dignity, to choose to die-with friends and loved ones-without having to suffer the final weeks of a terrible disease.
DS: If it's so pervasive, why do we need a law to allow it?
DH: People have to realize that assisted suicide is going on secretly, and it should be controlled and monitored. A good euthanasia law would protect against abuses. The law we wish to pass has built-in safeguards and protections. The main thing is that a doctor ought to be able, if he or she wishes, to give that help without fear of prosecution and persecution.
DS: Why doctors and not family members?
DH: A doctor knows whether or not the person is dying, whether the person is making a sensible request. A doctor has a general idea when the patient is going to die. A doctor also has access to lethal drugs and can administer those drugs. Doctors are used to obeying rules and regulations; medicine is, quite rightly, a highly regulated profession.
DS: Isn't there a great danger in giving doctors that much power? Aren't you concerned that doctors could be manipulated or paid off by a relative who wanted insurance money?
DH: Nothing is perfect. Some people are corrupt and evil. But most of us, doctors included, act properly and decently toward one another.
DS: You believe that doctors should be able to assist in suicide, yet your book, Final Exit, is a layman's guide.
DH: The book fills a need. Since doctors are not supposed to do it, people take it into their own hands.
DS: In the most controversial part of your book, you list specific drugs and dosages for people who want to commit suicide. Is it ethical to publicize that information?
DH: For five or six years, Hemlock has been selling a chart with that information for three dollars. We must have sold a hundred thousand copies. I knew that people were ready for a straightforward, no-nonsense guide.
DS: Many people have tried to kill themselves, failed and are grateful. In making suicide relatively foolproof, don't you deprive them of that second chance?
DH: It seems to me that if somebody is attempting suicide but not really wanting to do it, they deliberately underdose or draw attention to themselves in some way. They do it ten minutes before somebody is expected home, which is why they are discovered. Good. But those who intend to commit suicide will do it until they succeed.
DS: Not all of them. Do you know of cases where Final Exit was used by people in distress, but who were not terminally ill?
DH: A Massachusetts district attorney issued a statement claiming that three people over six months had used my book to end their lives-or at least my book was present in their homes. These people had mental problems. Can you blame me just because the book happens to be in the home of someone who shot himself? People have known how to shoot themselves for years. I don't recommend that method of suicide, anyway. In another case, a woman was found hanging and there was a copy of Final Exit in her house. Obviously, she had been looking at methods and thinking the matter over, but she chose to hang herself. Again, I don't recommend that method. In any case, people who want to kill themselves will figure out a way.
DS: Aren't many suicide attempts actually cries for help?
DH: Yes. Attempted suicides want to draw attention to their great pain.
DS: But if you make it easier to commit suicide, won't it be easier for someone who is simply depressed?
DH: That's not what we're advocating. The Hemlock guidelines are clear. There must be an enduring request by a dying person. There must be several applications to the doctor. You can't just sit up in bed on a bad day and say, "Kill me," and have the doctor kill you. There has to be a waiting period.
DS: But couldn't despondent people see Final Exit as an easy and painless way out? In effect, you disallow them a waiting period or a nonlethal drug dose. Couldn't you be responsible for unnecessary deaths?
DH: I honestly don't think so. We shall have to wait and see whether the suicide rate goes up-and the indications are that it hasn't. Even if it does, will there be more poison suicides than there used to be? We should do better at suicide prevention, shouldn't we? To try to transfer the blame to Final Exit is to skirt the real issues.
DS: For those who cannot get doctors' assistance, you recommend pills. But some of the fatal doses seem extremely large. Wouldn't it be hard to swallow forty or fifty pills?
DH: It would be. But I included many drug choices because the drugs aren't easily obtained. People must make do with what they can get.
DS: Is cyanide the best alternative?
DH: First of all, cyanide can be quite difficult to get hold of. Also, there's a division of opinion on it. A lot of experts tell me that it's very painful. Others say it is the best way to go. Done right, it's a fast and painless death. If you want my advice, I come down on the side of not using it.
DS: In the movies, don't spies plan to ingest cyanide pills if they are caught by the enemy?
DH: Yes, in pure and potent amounts. In the movies, however, we never see the final moments of that person who takes the suicide pill. It could be the worst agony. As far as doctors know, when you take cyanide, your blood literally boils. The credo of the Hemlock Society is that you ought to be able to take your life when terminally ill, holding the hand of your loved one. Anything like cyanide-that would bring on convulsions-is not acceptable. You cannot do that to your friends.
DS: Why do you also recommend placing a plastic bag over the head in addition to taking pills?
DH: Well, every now and again drugs act oddly. To make certain, you use a plastic bag.
DS: Why not only a plastic bag?
DH: You can do it with just a plastic bag, and that's well known. But it is easier to use the combination. Suffocation could inspire a panic. If you're near unconsciousness from drugs, the plastic bag only makes certain that you will not wake up.
DS: You must have stumbled across some good gallows humor. What's your favorite suicide joke?
DH: My favorite is the one about the person who is just about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. A New York City policeman dashes up to him, aims a gun and yells, "Get back or I'll shoot." The man gets back.
Bob Hope, Jay Leno and Dave Letter-man have joked about the book. Arsenio Hall did a bit that was tremendous. People were calling up librarians, telling them they wouldn't be bringing back their copy of Final Exit-they were going to use it. [Laughs] We don't mind being laughed at. You've arrived when you're part of the humor.
DS: Why do you not advocate many of the traditional means of suicide-wrist slitting, guns or the like?
DH: Teenagers and a great many suicidal people use violent means to kill themselves because they want to put the blame on other people. It's an act of terrible protest. The worst type of suicide is when people come home and find a family member hanging from a beam. It is done partly for self-destruction and partly to hurt other people. That is not what my book is about.
DS: Do people who plan to commit suicide worry about someone finding them hanging or having to clean up the blood?
DH: Our members do. The euthanasia people care very much about not putting others to trouble.
DS: So you believe that violent suicides aren't done out of convenience-a gun happened to be handy, for instance-but out of a desire to communicate a message?
DH: The shock of finding somebody you love hanging would be unforgettable. Our instructions are to do it as thoughtfully and humanely as possible. If you are thinking of doing it, tell people why and so forth. That is very different from violent suicides.
DS: Your argument against guns is that someone else has to clean up the mess?
DH: Yes. And it's a shock for anybody to see. Paramedics, doctors, family. That sort of behavior is not acceptable in the euthanasia movement.
DS: How effective is Drano?
DH: Under-the-sink chemicals are a terrible death, if in fact they work. Nobody in their right mind would take those chemicals. They burn your insides out and you'd be likely to throw yourself through a window. You'd go to your death in agony.
DS: What are your other least favorite ways to do it?
DH: If you electrocute yourself in your bath, you have to remember that somebody might rush in and, in attempting to rescue you, die as well. It's amazing that people don't think of things like that.
DS: Presumably they have other things on their minds.
DH: They ought to think about it. Hemlock people do not want to put others at risk.
DS: Do you recommend using car exhaust?
DH: Ever since cars became popular, people have been killing themselves inside their cars with the exhaust. So long as the car keeps running and it's in a secure place and nobody interrupts, it is a peaceful death. But it has the danger of the car stopping or a tremendous chance of being found by somebody knocking on the door, wondering why the car is running.
DS: What are some of the most bizarre methods of suicide you've run across?
DH: I'm deluged with crazy ideas. Bites from his pet rattlesnakes were how one man chose to die. An engineer had the heat of the sun's rays trigger a gun that shot him. He was a skilled engineer who wanted to go out in that style.
DS: How do you advise elderly partners who wish to die together?
DH: There are some old couples who are so devoted to each other, so dependent on each other, that they are determined to die together, even though only one of them is ill. That's a great tribute to their love. I think we should leave it uncriticized if that occurs. The sadder thing is that you see a lot of elderly people committing suicide because of the uncertainty of their lives. They are fearful that no one will help them die before they become incompetent or otherwise out of control. If they could make a lawful pact with their doctor and trust that people would help them, they might hang on. My wife Jean decided to take a third chemotherapy treatment because she had my promise to help her die when she wanted to-when things got too bad.
DS: Your experience with Jean was pivotal to your founding Hemlock. How did you meet her?
DH: We met in Manchester and were married when I was twenty-three. I was a reporter and interviewed Jean, who was the chairman of the youth council in her area. I took a shine to her during the interview. I had two tickets for a symphony and wrote to her, thanking her for the interview. In the note I said, "By the way, I'm going to a concert on Sunday. Here is a spare ticket." She turned up at the symphony and six weeks later we got married. We were married for twenty-two years. It was a good marriage. Three children, two of our own and one adopted.
DS: What was your family life like when you were a child?
DH: I was born of a typical middle-class family in Bath, Somerset. My parents' marriage was bad from the start. They were gadabouts, good-looking tearaways who should never have married. They weren't ready for marriage.
My father was a salesman. My mother was-I hear different descriptions-a model or a nightclub hostess. They were divorced soon after my birth. From what I can gather from my brother and others and little bits of memory, between the ages of about two and seven, we were just snatched between them. We would be coming out of school in Bristol, where my family moved, and my mother would arrive in a taxi and pick us up. The taxi would drive a hundred miles away and we'd be hidden in London.
My father would employ a private detective to find out where we'd gone. Then, sometime later, we'd be coming out of a school in London and my father would drive up in a car and-"Hello," "Hi, Dad," whoop-off in a car back to Bristol.
There was a bitter divorce action over custody, which my father won because his family was better off, better connected and had the lawyers. My mother was a lonely person. Something had gone wrong in her family. At any rate, the poor woman was beaten in the custody battle and was obviously very angry and upset. She took off for Australia and I never saw her again.
DS: What toll did that take?
DH: It made me cling to marriage and family very tightly. I never wanted to divorce or put my children through a divorce.
DS: When your mother left, did it in some ways make it easier? At least there were no more kidnappings.
DH: Well, no. I spent a lot of the time living with aunts and uncles. Unknown to me, my father spent a couple years in prison. I was told he was off on an extended sales trip. They would take my letters and readdress them to him in prison.
DS: What had he done?
DH: He forged a check. He was in a bad business deal and got left holding the bag. When he came out, he went straight into the Royal Air Force as a tail gunner. He did the bravest thing he could do to prove something. He was shot down. Then they put him in a machine-gun nest on the cliffs of Dover because the Battle of Britain was starting.
I hardly knew him during those years. After the war I got to know him. For a while we lived together.
DS: How did you become a newspaper reporter?
DH: When I was fourteen, I set my heart on being a famous writer. When I left school, I went to London. An employment exchange sent me to the Yorkshire Post, which wanted an editorial assistant. I didn't realize that editorial assistant was a euphemism for messenger boy. Still, I watched and I learned. That's when I met Jean.
I went back to Bristol, my home town, and got a job at one of the papers as a junior reporter. I was up and away. I went to different newspapers until I landed at the Sunday Times, arguably the best newspaper in the world at that point. I found I was really at the top of my profession, working with marvelous people. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.
DS: When did you learn that Jean was ill?
DH: She was diagnosed with cancer when we were in London.
DS: What kind of cancer?
DH: Breast cancer, which turned into bone cancer.
DS: How long was she ill?
DH: She was ill for several years when it became clear that she was going to die. I knew I was going to lose her. It was just a question of when. I was expecting to nurse Jean to her death. In Oxford Hospital one afternoon, she asked me to help her die.
DS: Just like that?
DH: She said, "Help me to die." She explained why. About six years earlier, her mother had died of lung cancer. I wasn't present because I was looking after the children in London while Jean went to care for her mother. She was traumatized by it. She told me about how her mother had died at home in great physical and psychic pain. Her mother had screamed for help to die. She begged to be put out of her pain and misery.
Jean was deeply shocked, right to her roots. She concluded that she would never go through anything like that. She'd also seen a lot of people die in cancer wards-she had been in and out of hospitals for several years.
DS: How did you respond when she asked you to help her die?
DH: I had no time to realize how to cope with all this. It was all happening so fast. But she had thought it out lying there for weeks in hospital beds. She told me what she wanted me to do: "Go to a doctor, get lethal drugs and have them ready. When I'm ready to take them, I'll tell you."
She was very insistent. She said she wanted my decision then and there. She said that on the day that she was to die she didn't want any arguments or changes of mind. [He begins to cry.] She asked if I was quite sure.
DS: Were your children consulted?
DH: They were told. They were a bit shattered, but they had helped me look after their mother. They received the news of her decision with numb silence. Later, they were very supportive.
DS: When did she decide to do it?
DH: Once we had discussed it and agreed, she decided to take another chemotherapy treatment that had been recommended. It gave her some more time. As I said, without the agreement that I would help her to die, I doubt she would have taken that third chemotherapy. She didn't want to go through with it because she thought she might not come out of it in good shape. Luckily, it was bearable and she got a remission. It didn't last long, though.
DS: Were you prepared with the lethal dose of drugs? How did you get them?
DH: I didn't know which doctor to ask. I decided not to ask her doctors; I didn't want to involve them. They'd been fighting to control her pain and preserve her life. They were losing, but it wasn't their fault.
I had done a series of articles exposing medical politics in England and had a Deep Throat source in the medical profession, a young doctor. We met and I put it straight to him. I said, 'Jean's dying of cancer and she wants to commit suicide."
He had never met her. He interrogated me about the cancer, how long she had had it and how bad it was, what bones had broken, what medicine she was taking. I remember his words quite vividly. He said, "She has no quality of life left." She would lean forward and her ribs would snap. It was only going to get worse. He knew it.
He gave me the drugs and told me how to administer them.
DS: What were his instructions?
DH: He said they would be very bitter and she'd have a job swallowing them so I should put them in a drink and add lots of sugar.
DS: What were the drugs?
DH: A strong mixture of Seconal and codeine. I stored them safely away.
The doctors told her there was nothing else they could do. They asked where she wanted to die. She said she wanted to go home.
They sent her home with a big Brompton cocktail, which is a bottle of painkilling mixtures. Cocaine, heroin, alcohol and other things. It is designed to relieve pain but leave you alert.
At home she had good pain control. The pain was terrible, but within moments she could stop it with the drugs. The pain became worse and more frequent and she needed more Brompton cocktail and we knew she was dying.
One night, she sent me on an errand to do some shopping. It was to get rid of me. She called the boys in and said goodbye to them. I came back and didn't know she had told them. We went to sleep and woke up the next morning. Before she could even rise out of bed to sit up, she needed the pain-control medication. She was in indescribable agony.
I brought her tea and toast and the morning paper. I was watching her. I went over and looked out the window. I was watching her out of the corner of my eye.
She said, very quietly, "Is this the day?" It was awful. I just stood there at the window and I thought, you know, God. I knew it was coming. I knew what I had to do, but it was still the most awful question I had ever been asked.
I choked on the words. I must answer, I thought. I said, "Yes, if you want to die today, I can't disagree."
I said that she could go back into the hospital where they could help manage the pain better, but she said, "No, I'm not going back again." She then said she was going to die at one P.M. that day. She said, "I'm glad it's been decided. I've said goodbye to the boys. I don't want to see anybody else." She asked me to lock the door.
DS: Beyond the grief, do you remember what you were thinking?
DH: I remember being fascinated by how much control she had, how cool and courageous she was. There was great beauty in that sort of death, in the acceptance of death and knowledge that you can say goodbye. We spent those last hours between eight and one talking and laughing and crying. [He cries, stops again to collect himself.]
We talked about quarrels we'd had, and good times and bad times. And about the children, what we were going to do. She wanted to have a tremendous involvement in what was going to happen, as best she could. She wasn't dictating, but she wanted her input. She told me to go away to Trinidad to complete a book I was working on. She said to let the children have the cottage. Things like that. She said I should get married again whenever I wanted. She said she told the boys that they must accept whomever took her place.
We talked about lots of things and we played César Franck's Symphony in D Minor, which was played at the concert we went to that time I sent her the ticket. We celebrated her and her achievements before she died. So she went to her grave knowing that she was a loved and honored person.
Toward one in the afternoon, she said, "Look at the time. Go and get it."
I went upstairs and got the drugs. I mixed them in a big mug of coffee with lashings of sugar. I walked through the living room. The boys were there, sort of lying around, and they looked at me. I said, "She's getting ready to die." [Long pause, crying]
I took it in and put it on the bedside. She asked, "Is that it?" and I said, "Yes, if you drink that, you'll die."
I sat on the bed and gave her a last hug and a kiss. She picked up the mug with her hands and drank the coffee down. She said, "Goodbye, my love" and passed out. She lay there and then her breathing became heavy.
DS: Did she die right away?
DH: After about twenty minutes, to my horror, she vomited slightly. I didn't know then what I know now about this sort of thing. I thought, Oh, my God. How did I know how much of the drugs had come up? I cleaned her up and thought she might wake up if she hadn't absorbed the lethal amount. And I thought, If she wakes up, I'll kill her. I'll put a pillow over her and stifle her.
DS: You decided that in advance?
DH: I never thought about it, but then I thought, I don't care about the criminality or the immorality of it, I will not let this woman wake up. I will carry it through at all costs. But I didn't have to. At ten minutes to two, she ceased breathing.
DS: If you had to, would you have suffocated her?
DH: Yes. I'm afraid it's one of those moral decisions where your obligation of love and duty overrides the civil duty of the law. I would have, yes.
DS: How many times have you told the story of Jean's death?
DH: Many, many times.
DS: Are you surprised that people question your sincerity since you still break down when you tell it?
DH: All I know is that it was a very good marriage. I'm not trying to idealize it, but the love, the relationship, the death-they all happened.
DS: You have been criticized-and your honesty has been questioned-because you seem to milk the story. It seems that you have built your life on Jean's death.
DH: Well, you be the judge. The story strikes people. I'm proud of the story, though I'd just as soon stop telling it. It's a story I cannot get away from.
DS: Your second wife, Ann, accused you of suffocating Jean. She says that you confessed to her that you actually killed Jean with a pillow.
DH: I was intent on helping Jean to die. Some people would call what I did murder. Devout Catholics would call bringing her drugs and sitting with her murder. But I didn't suffocate her. That is a lie.
DS: Were the police involved?
DH: No. A doctor arrived and wrote out a death certificate. The cause of death was carcinomatosis-cancer. It would never again have been mentioned had I not written about it.
DS: How did you meet Ann?
DH: I met Ann through an advertisement in the New Statesman within a year of Jean's death. She was one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. She had a wonderful Nordic beauty, lovely features. She was also very brilliant. We fell madly in love.
After a few months I asked her to marry me. I was in my mid-forties and full-blooded and healthy. I had had a good marriage. People who have had a good marriage look to replace it with another one. It's not like divorce, where you are often left embittered.
DS: How did you decide to write the book?
DH: After some time, I thought of writing an article about Jean's death. I thought there was much to say in the way she had chosen to die. Ann said it was more than an article, it was a book. Ann wasn't working and she said she would help write it.
We wrote Jean's Way and found a publisher. Within a week of the book's appearance, I'd sold the paperback rights to the largest paperback house in England. I had sold about ten translation rights and I had four movie offers, though no movie was ever made.
DS: Weren't you concerned about being prosecuted for assisted suicide?
DH: I investigated the history of cases in England. No one had gone to jail for that crime. I knew it was a crime-the punishment could be up to fourteen years in prison-but the laws against it weren't enforced. I believed there was more value in telling the story than in worrying about the unlikely outcome of being prosecuted.
When Jean's Way was published three years later, there was a police inquiry. I told the police that I assisted Jean's suicide at her request. I said that if they wished to take me to court, I would plead guilty and employ a lawyer to defend me against a prison sentence. They asked me sixty-four times who gave me the drugs, but I wouldn't tell.
DS: When did you found the Hemlock Society?
DH: Ann and I moved to Los Angeles in 1980. She wanted to go back to America and I got a job with the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, with money left over from Jean's Way, I decided to start the organization. My journalistic antennas told me this was going to be a big issue. I'd done speaking tours since Jean's Way and the reaction was powerful and resounding. When I would speak, the halls were filled. It dawned on me. I thought there was something deeper going on. There was a huge concern. People were asking me for help, for advice. They were asking me for drugs and drug dosages.
DS: You founded Hemlock with Ann. What was her involvement?
DH: She worked with me on the books. I quit the Times and worked for Hemlock full-time. She also did her own writing. By then I realized that I had married in haste and would repent at leisure. I knew I'd made a mistake. I still loved her, but I knew it was going to be a nightmare being married to her.
DH: She was impossible. She had agoraphobia. She wouldn't leave the house. She quarreled with my children all the time. She made it impossible for me to see them. She wouldn't work. Later, I realized she couldn't work. Over time, I realized that I was married to a sick person. She would go into trances, deep depressions. I would take her to the hospital and they would give her tranquilizers. She went from therapist to therapist.
DS: Why did you stay with her?
DH: There would be signs that she was fighting it. Also, I was a child of divorce. I have a certain opposition to divorce, perhaps more than most people, because of my childhood.
DS: What led to the divorce?
DH: Anyone who abandoned her, in her mind, would have to be destroyed. I knew if I left her she would turn on Hemlock. I was terrified of leaving, so things went on. But 1986 was a year of disaster. My eldest son, still in England, got into trouble with drugs. He got picked up by the police and got six years in prison. It was a terrible blow. You don't expect your son to go to prison. To his credit, he did three years of his six years and came out fitter than when he went in. He redeemed himself and I'm very proud of him.
Anyway, a month later, my brother died. He was the one who carried me through my childhood in the absence of my parents. He went into the hospital at the age of fifty-eight, only recently happily remarried and financially prosperous. His life had just settled down and his children were off.
He went in to have an ear cleaned out and something went wrong. His heart stopped beating for thirty minutes. They got it beating again, but of course he was brain damaged.
I rushed over to England and looked at him in the intensive care ward. He was as good as dead. Nurses pulled back his eyelids and shined flashlights into his eyes. His pupils were fixed; it was a terrible sign. He was attached to every life-support system known to man. His wife, a hospital matron who was extremely knowledgeable about medicine, said it was hopeless.
We all sat down, his children, myself and his wife, and talked about what should be done. They asked me to ask the doctor to disconnect his life-support system and let him die.
The doctor said, "Mr. Humphry, we were just waiting for you to ask." He died that evening. He stopped breathing. Sudden death is far more painful than terminal illness. There is no preparing for it, no saying goodbye.
Then, that same year, Ann's parents, who were in a bad state of health, asked to be helped to die. Her father was ninety-two and had congestive heart failure. Her mother was seventy-eight and had had one severe stroke. She was paralyzed. It took her twenty minutes to cross the room with a walker. They decided to die together.
DS: Isn't it rather incredible that you have been involved in the deaths of nearly everyone around you?
DH: Well, it's not everyone. We're talking about Jean in 1975. And then eleven years later, in 1986, my brother and Ann's parents.
DS: Would Ann's parents have considered suicide if their daughter and son-in-law hadn't been in the business?
DH: Probably. A lot of people consider it as an option. Their family doctor told Ann's parents they had to go into the hospital. They didn't want to. They said they wanted to take their own lives. I told them, individually, that they had other choices and didn't need to do this. But they felt very strongly about it. They said they wanted to die together.
DS: Was there any reason why Ann would have felt that you had talked her parents into killing themselves?
DH: No. She asked me to get the drugs. She ground up the drugs and put them in yogurt. I was there, perfectly supportive. I took her mother out for a walk in the wheelchair the afternoon before she died and I said to her, "Ruth, you don't have to die if you don't want to. It's absolutely your choice. Just because Arthur is intent on dying doesn't mean you have to. We'll take you back to California." She said no. I'm quite clear of conscience. I was very fond of her parents. But then Ann turned on me.
DS: Because of the way her parents had died?
DH: Ann began to say I didn't support her emotionally. I said, "What do you mean? I did everything I could." She was obsessed with this.
DS: Is that what finally caused the divorce?
DH: It would take great minds to analyze what went wrong in the final stages. Another blow struck in 1989. She found a lump in her breast. When she found the lump, she kept telling me I didn't care. I told her I did care, I was concerned.
She had a lumpectomy and the doctor biopsied her lymph glands. He put her through every test there was. Medicine is not all that good at curing, but it is good at testing. The doctor concluded that the cancer had been removed and there was no trace of more. Ann was all right. But she had a preoccupation with death.
DS: Was it connected to her involvement with you and Hemlock?
DH: Who knows? All I know is she started on a kick of saying, "Why aren't you crying for me like you cried for Jean?"
"Because you're not dying. I really think you're going to make it. The prognosis is good and there's no need to be concerned." She wouldn't hear it. I said, "There's every reason to believe that you're going to pull out of this." But she was obsessed that she was going to die.
I finally decided the marriage was over. I could not bear to carry three albatrosses: her hatred of my children, her blame for the deaths of her parents and now her dying-that I cared for Jean and not her. It was more than this human flesh could bear. There had to be a better life out there.
(continued on page 143)Derek Humphry(continued from page 58)
I knew it was a bad time to leave her. I knew she would turn on me with all the viciousness she had. That was her nature. But I couldn't take any more. And I told her.
DS: In a message on the answering machine, according to magazine reports--
DH: A lot has been made about this tape-recorded message, but this is what happened. On a Wednesday we quarreled all day. We'd been in therapy for the previous six months, seeing therapists in Eugene, Oregon, where we lived. I said we should go back to the therapists and figure out what to do. In a meeting with them that night I told her and the two therapists that it was more than I could take. She threw a huge tantrum, shouted and screamed and danced up and down the room saying that I was abandoning her. I said, "You've driven me away! I cannot live like this." She begged and pleaded and, to calm her down, I said I would think about it for a few days. She calmed down immediately.
I had to speak at Hemlock meetings in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I went on that trip and thought about what to do. I brooded on it and thought, I cannot go back, I cannot.
I started calling her on Saturday to say that I was confirming my decision that the marriage was over. I called and called all day Saturday, Saturday evening and Sunday. There was never an answer.
I had to get on a plane to Dallas that evening and decided to leave the message on the answering machine. I thought she just wasn't answering the phone. So I left a message saying that the marriage is over, I will do all I can to support you and look after you, but the marriage is over. Of course, journalists just love to hold it against me that I finished the marriage on an answering machine, but it is just not the truth. It had been breaking up for years.
DS: The implication has been that you deserted a woman with cancer.
DH: From then until she committed suicide two years later, no one-no doctors, none of her friends-ever said she had cancer. She did not. The cancer never came back.
DS: Why did she kill herself?
DH: I think she was miserable. First she turned on me. She went to the newspapers, got herself on talk shows. The breakup of our marriage rivaled Donald Trump's at the time.
DS: Particularly when you threatened her. You said you would tell the truth about the death of her parents. And once again, you did it using her answering machine.
DH: We all make mistakes and this was mine. A People magazine reporter came to see me and asked me what it was like growing up knowing my father was in prison. It was not accurate. I didn't know he was in prison until later. I asked how she knew about that. Ann told her. I explained it and then the reporter asked what it was like to have my son in prison. "Ann told you that, too?"
I was very angry. This was really playing dirty, I thought. In my great anger, when the reporter left, I called Ann and made a silly threat to her. I said if she didn't shut up I would report her to the police.
DS: Report her for what?
DH: That we had committed a crime in assisting in the suicides of her parents. What I said was stupid and unwise. I regret it and I've withdrawn it.
DS: Weren't you being a hypocrite? Wasn't that against everything you've worked for?
DH: Quite. It was something I said in the heat of anger and it was a lapse on my part. But that's what provoked me. Then she revealed my threat to People magazine. To my astonishment, I opened People magazine and found my telephone message in there.
DS: Ann's suicide note charged you with murdering your first wife.
DH: It's awful to think that somebody you loved and worked with so much would kill herself like that. And leave such an accusatory suicide note.
DS: She wrote, "Ever since I was diagnosed as having cancer, you have done everything conceivable to precipitate my death."
DH: It was a terrible lie from a very sick woman.
DS: In her suicide note, Ann wrote that 'Jean actually died of suffocation."
DH: Yes. I swear to you. I told you what happened. But there has been so much pain. You know, perhaps I deserve some of it, but nobody is totally to blame for another person's life or death. It's been a sad scene. I hope to put it behind me as best I can. I will never be able to put it behind me completely.
DS: How much did your battle with Ann hurt the Hemlock Society?
DH: I don't think it did. We had no people leave the organization because of Ann.
DS: None? The press reported that the number has gone down.
DH: Our membership roll has gone up to a record fifty thousand people. Last year our member revenue increased by one hundred and forty thousand dollars. So the Hemlock Society has gone on.
DS: Will your work continue? Can you overcome these questions about your character?
DH: I have made mistakes like everyone else, but I hope, in the long run, that they don't take away from my work with Hemlock.
DS: Do you now devote all of your time to the Hemlock Society?
DH: I do nothing else, though I plan to retire as head of the Hemlock Society this summer. I informed the board. I'll be sixty-three next year and administering this huge organization is not my forte. I'm a writer and talker and speaker and leader. I'm not particularly a good administrator. I can afford to live off the income of my books, so I shall work full-time-unpaid-speaking and arguing and writing to get this into law. Also, as executive director of the Hemlock Society, there are limitations on what I can do legally.
DS: What kind of limitations?
DH: We're a tax-exempt organization, so I cannot be as political as I would like. After August first, I'll be free-lance and I can say and do what I want without fear of jeopardizing the Hemlock Society's legal and financial status. That's my dream, law reform. Hemlock will continue to help people to die, but our real goal is to make ourselves unnecessary. That's what this is all about: so any person, in pain and dying, can choose the time they will die and be helped by their doctor so they can go as gently and painlessly as possible.
DS: If you were sick and dying, would you choose suicide?
DH: I would, though I hope I don't have to practice what I preach. If my dying is peaceful and bearable and there's no pain or indignity, then I shall die naturally. If, on the other hand, there's great pain and suffering and indignity and I can't stand it, then I shall kill myself.
DH: I would use drugs and a plastic bag. My hope is that it would be a lawful, physician-assisted suicide. That is my aim. If it isn't lawful, though, I'll have to do it myself.
"The fear of waking up from a failed suicide attempt is one of the most deep-rooted fears people have."
"But then I thought, I don't care about the criminality or the immorality of it, I will not let this woman wake up."