The Magazine

THE PROFIT OF HEMLOCK

The Suicide Guru Boasts of the Money He'll Save

Feb 15, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 21 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



In Freedom to Die, suicide guru Derek Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society, and Mary Clement, a pro-euthanasia attorney, describe the assisted-suicide movement as "a pure flame of revolution," rising from the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. It is an era they proclaim to be of greater historic importance than the American and Russian Revolutions, and in the authors' view, the last great unfinished business of those glorious days is legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia. Indeed, they see the freedom to be killed as "the ultimate civil right."


Freedom to Die is both a partisan history of euthanasia and propaganda for its legalization. To make their case, Humphry and Clement blend half-truths, fabrications, and tactical omissions, with a near-hysterical diatribe against the free-speech rights of Catholics. Taken as a whole, the book epitomizes the intellectual dishonesty of most assisted-suicide advocacy -- which is exactly why it is so hard to explain the authors' one major strategic mistake.


Although most of Freedom to Die is retreaded material, Humphry and Clement open up a new line of argument by advocating assisted suicide as a way to control medical costs. In doing so, they actually strengthen the anti-euthanasia cause. For years, opponents have warned that killing the sick and disabled will prove not to be about compassion or choice, but about money. And in response, euthanasia advocates have called them paranoids and fantasists.


But now Humphry and Clement admit that cost containment is one of their ultimate purposes:


A rational argument can be made for allowing [assisted suicide] in order to offset the amount society and family spend on the ill, as long as it is the voluntary wish of the mentally competent terminally ill adult. . . . The hastened demise of people with only a short time left would free up resources for others. Hundreds of billions of dollars could benefit those patients who not only can be cured but who want to live.


Imagine a health-care system that favors death as the best treatment for cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, or spinal injury. Imagine the money to be made if HMOs are spared the expense of caring for such patients. And imagine the potential for coercion when killing leads to the profits the authors envision. As Freedom to Die points out with approval, this means a return to the morality of the ancient practices of exposing disabled infants on the hillside and leaving the elderly and infirm to die by the trail -- or, as Humphry and Clement candidly call it, "the abandonment of the unproductive."


If only the authors had been so candid in the rest of their book. Unfortunately, they often merely chant the shopworn mantra that suicide is to be restricted to "the mentally competent, terminally ill adult." On this point, Humphry's own writings betray them. In the 1996 version of his how-to-commit-suicide guide, Final Exit, Humphry wrote, "Severely handicapped people have an inalienable right either to live or choose to die, just the same as anybody else."


Humphry is not the only prominent ideologue who advocates suicide for those not terminally ill. His colleague Faye Girsh, executive director of the Hemlock Society, issued a 1998 press release stating that the Hemlock Society supported legalization of assisted suicide for "every person with an incurable illness and unbearable suffering." That "incurable" is telling. It's meant to make us believe it refers only to terminal illness, but it actually means something else. Osteoarthritis, for example, is incurable. So is diabetes. So is asymptomatic HIV infection. So is shingles.


Most of the nation's assisted-suicide advocates have at one time or another endorsed euthanasia for patients without terminal illness. Timothy Quill, for example, has written that assisted suicide should be available for the disabled, though he later recanted the idea when confronted with it in front of a congressional committee. Last October, the World Federation of Right to Die Societies advocated in its Zurich Declaration legalized suicide for "all competent adults, suffering severe and enduring distress." Death for the distressed? The declaration is a call for death on demand.