The Fractured History of the Hemlock Society

A judicial determination should be made when it is necessary to hasten the death of an individual, whether it be a demented parent, a suffering, severely disabled spouse or a child.

~ Former Hemlock Society Executive Director Faye Girsh.1

 

British journalist Derek Humphry had a bit of a problem on his hands in early 1975.  His wife Jean was suffering from incurable bone cancer, and he could not bear to see her in such pain.  So, after much discussion between them, he handed her a cup of coffee loaded with barbiturates and pain killers.  She drank this concoction and died within minutes.

Less than a year after Jean died, Humphry married Ann Wickett.  With her help, he wrote the book Jean’s Way, describing the ordeal he had shared with his first wife.  The media was actively seeking ways to promote euthanasia, so the book was soon made into a pro-euthanasia television movie and a stage play entitled Is this the Day?, the last words Jean Humphry allegedly spoke before she killed herself.

In 1980, Humphry moved to Los Angeles, where he founded the Hemlock Society, aptly named after the cup of poisonous herbs that the Greek philosopher Socrates was forced to drink by his Athenian enemies (perhaps it is significant that Socrates was the victim of involuntary assisted suicide).  Humphry also founded a pro‑euthanasia political group named Americans against Human Suffering (AAHS) to promote the legalization and social acceptance of assisted suicide.

hemlock death of socrates jacques louis david

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David

What was Humphry’s goal?  Like all leading euthanasists, he despised true religion, boasting, “We are trying to overturn 2,000 years of Christian tradition.”2

 

The Deaths of Ann’s Parents

In 1986, Ann Wickett Humphry’s parents took their own lives, assisted by her and Derek Humphry.  The Humphrys impersonated doctors in order to obtain lethal doses of Vesparex, a powerful barbiturate.  They then mixed the crushed tablets into applesauce and ice cream.  Ann spoon-fed her mother the deadly ice cream, and Derek watched her father feed himself the applesauce.  Both of Ann’s parents died minutes later.3  Technically, Derek Humphry assisted in a suicide while his wife actually committed a homicide.

The Humphrys knew that they had committed serious felonies, so they covered up the evidence of their crimes.  Ann put the dishes in the dishwasher and buried her handbag, containing the unused Vesparex, in the garbage.  The Humphrys also destroyed any other evidence of their participation in the deaths, including all correspondence between themselves and Ann’s parents regarding assisted suicide.  To top it all off, Ann told the coroner that her sister was their parent’s primary caregiver, thereby attempting to implicate her in the deaths!3

Following her husband’s lead, Ann Humphry soon authored a book about her parent’s death entitled Double Exit (perhaps the title was in deference to Britain’s Exit Society, another “right‑to‑die” group).

 

Ann’s Turn to Die

Unfortunately for Ann, what goes around always comes around….

Ann Wickett Humphry was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 1989.  Derek Humphry, the leader of the “compassionate” Hemlock Society, responded to this situation by labeling her a mental incompetent and then dumping her.

Robert W. Stone, Ann’s son, defended her and revealed some of the inner machinations of the Hemlock Society when he wrote:

Having to respond to Derek Humphry’s claims of my mother’s “mental illness” is both humiliating and insulting.  Anyone who knew Ann Wickett realizes how courageous and sensible she was, and how preposterous such claims are.  And no one better than Humphry himself.  Death for Humphry’s Hemlock Society is strictly business, and to him his wife simply became bad business, to be discarded.  What he did to my mother disgusts me.  To top it off, he had no qualms about printing a eulogy in The New York Times, then later openly admitting its purpose was damage control.4

Ann then publicly charged Derek with gross hypocrisy.  Where was the caring, nurturing attitude so prevalent in Hemlock Society literature?  Ann said, “I am an embarrassment to them.  I was dumb enough to get cancer.”3  She wrote a short suicide letter to her husband before killing herself:

Dear Derek:

There.  You got what you wanted.  Ever since I was diagnosed as having cancer, you have done everything conceivable to precipitate my death.

I was not alone in recognizing what you were doing.  What you did — desertion and abandonment and subsequent harassment of a dying woman — is so unspeakable there are no words to describe the horror of it.

Yet you know.  And others know too.  You will have to live with this until you die.

May you never, ever forget.

Ann added a hand‑written note to this suicide letter and sent it to her friend, anti‑euthanasia campaigner Rita Marker.  This note said, “My final words to Derek.  He is a killer.  I know.  Jean [his first wife] actually died of suffocation.  I could never say it until now; who would believe me?  Do the best you can.”5

After writing down her despairing thoughts, Ann Humphry rode her horse into a remote Oregon wilderness and killed herself.

poisonous hemlock flower

Hemlock flower

The Hemlock Society and Assisted Suicide

Ann Humphry charged that the Hemlock Society had become a “parasitic organism,” taking dues from tens of thousands of members and returning very little (Derek Humphry’s salary was at least $65,000 in 1985 ― $145,000 in today’s dollars ― not counting travel expenses and many other perquisites).  Additionally, Humphry retained full control of Hemlock Society finances, and authorized illegal transfers of Hemlock money to non-tax exempt satellite organizations such as Americans against Human Suffering, which he also founded.3

Although it does not flatly say so in public, the Hemlock Society has as its ultimate objective the enshrining of euthanasia on demand in the United States in the same manner that abortion on demand is now so honored. Speakers at Hemlock Society conferences and meetings frequently urge members to work towards this goal.

As Derek Humphry has made perfectly clear, the Society intends to use the virtually infallible strategy of gradualism to achieve its ultimate goal.  The leader of another pro-euthanasia group, Concern for Dying, describes how gradualism works:

You are right when you say that our people believe rational suicide to be acceptable ― our position is that individuals make their own decisions and that those decisions should be honored by others.  We also know from experience that if we try to foist our ideas too strongly and too soon on a society not yet ready to consider them, we will damage if not destroy our effectiveness.  By moving cautiously and without stridency, we gain a larger audience for our views.6

First the euthanasiasts pushed for the Living Will, and then the durable power of attorney.  Then it was doctor‑assisted suicide, and finally it will be euthanasia on demand.

In support of its goals, the Hemlock Society and its members actively counsel people to take their own lives.  Their purpose in doing so is not only to relieve the suffering of individuals; they correctly assume that widespread flouting of the law is a powerful propaganda tool.  After all, if a law is widely ignored, why retain it?  It’s outmoded and antiquated, after all, and society has matured beyond such meaningless restraints.

Does all of this sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, it certainly should!

despairing woman dark

The Hemlock Society published a book entitled Compassionate Crimes, Broken Taboos, which is a detailed anthology of mercy killings and assisted suicides.3  Members of the Society joked that libraries have a real problem in getting people to return this book (after all, dead people don’t worry much about nickel-a-day fines).

Disturbingly, the Hemlock Society experienced a large influx of new members in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including many AIDS sufferers.  If American society continues to follow the utilitarian Hemlock lead, we may soon find a cheap, easy, and efficient way to avoid the expense of caring for all of those stigmatized “AIDS sufferers.”

Even more unsettling is the fact that the “Right to Die” movement is spreading all over the world.  Derek Humphry is a past President of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, which currently claims a million members in 23 countries.

 

How the Hemlock Society Gave Us Legal Euthanasia

The Hemlock Society (now Compassion & Care since it merged with Compassion in Dying) sought to legalize and normalize physician-assisted suicide. One of the biggest actors in this movement was Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He successfully brought this topic into the public eye.

 

Jack Kevorkian, Dr. Death

According to InsideEdition, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, otherwise known as “Dr. Death,” had a longtime interest in the dying, not the living. He was also a member of the Hemlock Society.

According to a report by the Hemlock Society of San Diego, the event that garnered nationwide attention to the Hemlock Society was the 1990 assisted suicide of fellow Hemlock member Janet Adkins. Janet had specifically sought out Kevorkian for this. He assisted her in her suicide using his deceptively named “Mercitron” machine, a machine that dispensed carbon monoxide to a patient.

Between 1990 and 1997, Kevorkian assisted in the suicides of 130 patients (his own admission). A 1997 report revealed that at least 60% of Kevorkian’s patients that he killed were not terminally ill, and 13 had not even complained of pain.

In 1997, his spree had come to an end. Kevorkian killed patient Tom Youk, who had ALS, through a lethal injection. To make this crime worse, he videotaped it, as though killing a patient is a casual and ironic thing. The public was horrified. Kevorkian suggested he must be charged with murder, and that the case must be decided by the Supreme Court. A move that was likely an attempt to garner attention and sympathy for his cause.

While Kevorkian had evaded the law for 7 years while he helped end the lives of 130 patients, Tom Youk’s case was different. Allegedly, Kevorkian had only given the other patients the means (and ease) of killing themselves, which was the technicality that kept him from being prosecuted. In Youk’s case, Kevorkian had used a lethal injection to kill the patient himself, thereby committing homicide.

In the end, he was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison for second degree murder. He ended up serving only eight, being released at age 79. He later died in 2011 at the age of 83. His legacy lives on, and his life serves as one that made assisted suicide a more acceptable practice in Americans’ minds.

As Derek Humpry put it:

The Hemlock Society was founded 10 years before Kevorkian came on the scene. And he did a great job in publicizing the right to choose to die. … [But] our tactics were different. I wanted to change the law, to permit physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. He wanted to shock the medical profession by his antics and his show-offs on television and his costumes and all the rest of it. But that’s not how things work. Doctors will not step outside the law if they can possibly help it.

Doubtless, the Hemlock Society’s efforts – strengthened by “Dr. Death” – contributed to the legalization and acceptance of physician-assisted suicide in 10 states and DC.

 

Today’s Hemlock Society

After Humphry left the Hemlock Society, its leadership renamed the organization End-of-Life Choices in 2003.  Shortly thereafter, End-of-Life Choices merged with Compassion in Dying and became known as Compassion & Choices.  Soon after, Compassion & Choices of New York State renamed itself End of Life Choices New York.

Compassion & Choices (C&C) — the former Hemlock Society — is a $25 million a year organization currently comprised of (1) the C&C national headquarters, located in Denver, Colorado; (2) the C&C Action Network, its legislative advocacy arm; and (3) state chapters in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington State.

Compassion and Choices states that its mission is to “improve care” and “expand end-of-life options.”  Unsurprisingly, its website has very little information on the first element of this mission and is dedicated almost entirely to pushing physician-assisted suicide.

 

Final Thoughts

The Hemlock Society may now have a name that implies that it is much more caring and gentler, but at its core it is the same old lethal Hemlock Society. For them, death is simply a matter of economics and a tool to enhance the comfort and convenience of those who are still alive and healthy.

 

This article was most recently updated in April 2023.

+ Endnotes

[1] Hemlock Society Executive Director Faye Girsh, December 3, 1997 quote.  “Ten Pro-Life Activists Charged.”  LifeSite Daily News, January 26, 1998.

[2] Derek Humphry, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 28, 1992, page A25.

[3] Thomas W. Case.  “A Requiem for the Hemlock Society.”  Fidelity Magazine, June 1990, pages 24 to 32.

[4] Robert W. Stone, son of Ann Wickett Humphry, in a letter to Vanity Fair, March 1992.

[5] Excerpts from Anne Wickett Humphry’s suicide note, addressed to her husband Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, before she killed herself in 1991.  Quoted in “Final Exit.”  Arlington Catholic Herald, November 4, 1993, page 4.

[6] Mrs. A‑J. Rock‑Levinson, Executive Director of Concern for Dying, in a 1978 letter replying to a pro‑lifer’s question.  Quoted in Father Paul Marx’s  And Now…Euthanasia.  Gaithersburg, Maryland: Human Life International, 1985, page 23.  Second revised edition.

Brian Clowes, PhD

Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.

Marisa Cantu has an MS in political science and international affairs and a BA in political science. She has also studied international studies and French. She has a strong background in nonprofit work, research, writing, and policy proposal and analysis.

In her free time, Marisa enjoys painting, writing, cooking, and spending time with her husband.

5 Comments

  1. A on December 31, 2023 at 12:29 PM

    He can’t found that he joined something. You’ve contradicted yourself multiple times or you’re simply not intelligent enough to have noticed the issue from what you copy pasted.

  2. Deacon William Orazio Gallerizzo on October 3, 2023 at 12:21 PM

    Switzerland is not the answer. Humphry is not a man of his conviction either. His interest is only in himself and what suits him at a given moment. When Ann came down with cancer, he tried to coerce her to be forcibly killed as he did his first wife, and Ann’s parents. So then he coerced their friends to abandon her as he also did because she CHOSE not to go that way. But she did not agree so he threw her out.

    Because some law permits something and someone calls it compassionate does not mean it is moral, and does not mean it is compassionate. Humphry’s group spreads misinformation. The refuse also to dialogue or to discuss the issue with anyone who disagrees. Those who do such are insecure about their position. They are fearful that they have gone the wrong direction but are afraid someone will convince them otherwise. Therefore, they thrive on fear, certainly not Science, or Faith, or Medicine. Only fear.
    By the way, Science and Faith are not opposing positions. that I can tell you. I am a Catholic clergyman and a Scientist, and a Bioethicist. And yes, the Universe IS A DYNAMIC SYSTEM that took billions of years in formation. And yes, I am a married clergyman, and my wife is on her SECOND cancer battle. She helped me choose to live when I fell off a second story on a construction site 40 years ago, and I am helping her to choose to live and weather the treatments. And 10 years ago, she made it through Interferon over Melanoma (a brutal chemotherapy), and just last month had an autologous bone marrow transplant for Multiple Myeloma and is still immuno-compromised from the process. But, we do not give up. We stay in there even if it means to fight for the life of the ones we love. The media went ape over Brittany Maynard who killed herself, but how many heard of Laureen Hill, a basketball star who chose life, and raised over $1.5 million for Brain Cancer research while she lived another year, and died naturally at home. her foundation still works to raise money, most of it going to cancer research, not trying to prop up a half-witted self-entitled fool who killed for his own gain. Talk about Science, where would you be on the spectrum of Natural Selection and your own survival, and what have you taught your kids about being alive, really alive? Miracles are not magic tricks. They require that we are open to those God sends into our lives to support, not to tear down, to live and accept death when it is time, but not to roll over to die when we still have a breath to breathe.
    I am not blind to those like Humphry who are slanted in their world view, who live for buzzwords and popularity, and their penchant for using others to get what they want, when they want it, touting choice as long it is their choice, or to Hell with those who choose otherwise. What people don’t get about the word “CHOSE.” If everyone did the same thing, there is no choosing! I will say it plainly. The man is a hypocrite who uses others, as are many who follow him looking for opportunity for their own gain. I can speak this way from experience. I also played Rock Music as a professional guitarist, multiple times in front of 25,000 people. Fame isn’t all its cracked up to be. Living to live is a life that never fails us, unless we fail ourselves.
    As for some of those areas like Switzerland where Assisted Death is legal. the stories that are NOT told are those whose families have them killed to save resources, they won’t take time to live with them through the disease, or some other excuse for psychological abandonment. The real heroes are those who help their loved ones live through to natural end. I know well people in those areas whose loved ones took the dead-meds, and no one I’ve ever met has anything but remorse and regret for years going into major depression, that they did not do enough for their loved ones who killed themselves, by whatever means. It wrecks families more than it helps. Many LGTBQ+ embraced Humphry’s way during the AIDS crisis, but I know very well a family who lost 2 sons to AIDS, better than I know some of my own cousins. The family and the community around them all came together. No one was abandoned. They died at home naturally in their time, their mother well supported by the community. It was tough, but no regrets. No one rolled over to die prematurely at anyone’s hand, but continued to make a difference, and their mother, who was engaged in the dance world was able to continue to be herself as well. She lost 2 sons, but no one lost dignity. She is going on 100 her next birthday and is still very active. And in the process of care for them we all came together to raise thousands of dollars for AIDS relief and families of victims.
    Everyone is capable of what they are willing to do. But dying out of convenience helps no one and does no one any favors. Live life for life; don’t live life for death. Those who do never really get what they want, nor does anyone benefit.
    Humphry’ book is full of his own misconceptions and lack of logical arguments for his own position other than he felt sorry for his wife. Has anyone thought that he was not really the husband he thought he was? Where was he in all her trials? He had mentally abandoned her when her cancer started. It was not conviction that he killed her, but convenience, his own convenience. Ann decided otherwise because it became clear that Humphry had used her to get rid of Jean, and then used it to make money.
    Phoenicians / Carthaginians practically invented Euthanasia. They also invented Crucifixion. If that is the kind of legacy you embrace, go for it, but it’s not good company or a great legacy that a people found horrible ways to kill people, and no Hemlock is no pleasure trip. It is horrible enough that the Carthaginians would then clobber the victim breaking his skull after they were in contorting spasms. Know what you are getting into and promoting. Life is real, not a fantasy.

  3. Chris Miller on March 14, 2023 at 1:38 AM

    Typical. Conservatives would rather adult Americans have less rights than their pets. Pets who are given the luxury of a peaceful exit when their time comes to spare them or unnecessary suffering and pain.
    Conservatives would also like to take away the last shred of decency that humans hold on to when they are suffering from painfully horrific diseases that take their life from them a little each day over the course of years (in some cases) as their self-reliance and dignity slip away. Specifically in cases of cancer that are incurable and present protracted battles just to keep away the multitude of pains that come with chronic, incurable disease. And finally, conservatives can’t stand the idea of a human taking a dignified way out of suffering when they can provide hospitals with an endless amount of revenue and profits. They see dying Americans as a cash cow, beings to be kept alive with tubes and machines for months and years on end as the dying create those massive profits that republicans love to count. They have and will always care more about profits than humans and will deny Americans the basic rights to dignity if there is money to be made. That’s the problem the hypocritical right have with the Hemlock Society and its updated name and mission. And that’s the truth.

  4. Ruth Tekell on February 16, 2023 at 5:46 PM

    Right wing conservatives seem to find a new right or freedom to take away from U.S. citizens everyday.
    They want to control whether you give birth, and under what circumstances, what you may and may not learn about history and science in schools and universities, what you can and cannot read, what drugs you can and can’t have. They want to tell you where to worship, who to worship, that you must worship, all while concocting their own version of reality regardless of the truth or any real morality. They want to control every aspect of your medical care and drive those who can’t afford it into stark poverty. They will in the end have a population so devoid of self-control and self-governance, so confused about the very existence of objective truth, they will simply have no means to determine fact from fiction. They will be the slave race for the wealthy.

    It isn’t surprising that they’d rather you suffered endlessly than get medications that would relieve pain, or that they’d rather you take your own life than allow you to have a drug that would relieve pain and give you your life back.

  5. Wynette Weaver on July 22, 2022 at 9:05 PM

    There’s such a stigma about suicide in the United States. In Switzerland, the Swiss find comfort knowing a peaceful death is possible if their personal life has become unbearable. There are no limiting restrictions, like only those people with a terminal illness with six months to live can qualify and an MD is present. In Switzerland “Existential Suffering” can qualify. An example might be a person who is physically active, loves swimming and the great outdoors, is social, belongs to clubs, etc. Suddenly, an accident leaves the person incapacitated, dependent on caregivers, confined to their house. This person doesn’t want to learn to paint with their toes. After years of suffering, the person is begging for release from this current life. In the US, rather than receiving support, everyone is horrified. This is why suicide is a surprise to all
    The suicidal person knows telling anyone means that they will end up in the psych ward. The Suicidal Hotline is useless. There is no real help. Strangely, there are no Suicide Prevention Groups for those who need to meet other people in the same state of mind, but many groups for those who have lost someone from suicide.
    A man in Australia, age 104, an academic who was a mentor for young students, finally did not want to continue living a useless life. He flew to Switzerland where his situation was understood and accepted. The man felt it was unconscionable that he had to fly to Switzerland to be helped.

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