The Magazine

New Name, Same Old Story

The Hemlock Society goes for an image change.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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WHAT'S NOT IN A NAME is the question du jour at single-issue advocacy groups. First the venerable National Abortion Rights Action League (or National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League in recent years) officially dropped abortion from its name and became "NARAL Pro-Choice America." Now, the Hemlock Society, the premier assisted-suicide group, has decided to recast its image with a new name (still not chosen) and a new P.R.-driven motto: The founding slogan, "Good life, good death," has been discarded for the new and improved "Promoting end-of-life choice."

Changing the group's name is designed to put a respectable veneer over the organization's raison d'être--legitimizing suicide. Yet, the word hemlock remains entirely apt. From its inception, the Hemlock Society has been obsessed with exercising control over death through suicide. Indeed, Hemlockers claim that assisted suicide, which they now euphemistically call "aid in dying," is the "ultimate civil right."

I became aware of the organization in 1992 when a friend killed herself under the influence of Hemlock Society literature. Frances's problem wasn't illness; it was depression over a life that had become a complete mess. When she was diagnosed with leukemia (which was not terminal), began to experience a painful neuropathy (while refusing to take her pain-controlling drugs), and learned she would soon require a hip replacement, Frances seems to have found the pretext she needed to justify finally doing what she had wanted to do for so long. Indeed, we found out after the fact that months before she died, Frances had entered an appointment in her calendar--the date of her 76th birthday--for her "final passage," an appointment she kept, accompanied by a distant cousin who was paid $5,000 to be with her, and perhaps, to assist her suicide.

Ever organized, Frances kept a suicide file. It contained several editions of the Hemlock Society's newsletter, then called the Hemlock Quarterly. As I read these newsletters, I was shocked out of my shoes. Each Quarterly was filled with proselytizing stories about so-called "good deaths" that had been facilitated by Hemlock members. For example, in the January 1988 issue, Frances had underscored the following words describing the suicide of "Sam," a terminal cancer patient:

Believe it or not, we laughed and giggled and [Sam] seemed to relish the experience. I think for Sam it was finally taking control again after ten years of being at the mercy of a disease and medical protocols demanded by that disease.

Suicide promoted as uplifting and enjoyable sickened me. But what really infuriated me was the "how to" sections of the newsletters. In one issue, a list of drugs was provided, with their relative toxicity. Frances had underscored the drugs that were the most poisonous.

I realized that this group, made up of people who didn't even know Frances, had been, figuratively speaking, whispering in her ear for years. First, they gave her moral permission to kill herself, fostering a romanticism about suicide that helped push her toward consummation. Then they convinced her she would be remembered with warmth for her act of taking "control." Finally, they taught her how to do it. I felt then, and do today, that while Frances was responsible for her own self-destruction, morally, if not legally, the Hemlock Society was an accessory before the fact.

In the years since Frances's suicide, Hemlock has gone through some outward changes while remaining steadfast to its dark ideology. It changed the name of the Hemlock Quarterly to Timelines, recently renamed again, this time to End of Life Choices. Its leadership changed, too, as the group struggled to appear less fringe, more mainstream and professional. But the more it tried to project a respectable image on the outside, the more obsessed with suicide the group seems to have become on the inside.

No longer satisfied to publish literature teaching people like Frances how to kill themselves or assist the suicides of others, several years ago Hemlock began to train volunteers to visit suicidal Hemlock members to counsel and, it would seem, hasten their deaths through its "Caring Friends" program. According to a tape transcript from the January 2003 Hemlock Society National Convention, the group's medical director, Dr. Richard McDonald, is present at many Caring Friends suicides and extols the use of helium and a plastic bag as a "very speedy process that has never failed in our program."

One need not be dying to qualify for Caring Friends' services. According to the November 1998 Timelines, access to Caring Friends is available for Hemlock members with "an irreversible physical condition that severely compromises quality of life," which could include a plethora of illnesses and disabilities that are not terminal.