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.
The Winter 2003 End of Life Choices reports proudly that 32 Hemlock members "died with Caring Friends information, support, and presence" in 2002. Knowing that Hemlock members are fascinated by the methods used, the article catalogues them: "Thirty used the inhalation method and two used the ingestion method."
Choices also informs us that 15 of these suicides were in hospice at the time of their deaths. If so, then the Caring Friends interfered with proper medical treatment of these patients. When I was trained as a hospice volunteer, I was explicitly told that suicidal ideation was a medical issue that hospice could often address successfully in dying patients and instructed to inform the hospice team of any expressed desire to self-destruct. Of course, Caring Friends is not about assuring that dying patients receive proper medical treatment.
The radical scope of Hemlock's ideological agenda is demonstrated by its financial and moral support of Dr. Phillip Nitschke, the Australian Jack Kevorkian. Nitschke is an out-and-out advocate of death-on-demand, who is infamous Down Under for his plan to purchase a passenger ship, which he intends to steam into international waters on one-way euthanasia death cruises. Nitschke has been paid tens of thousands of dollars by the Hemlock Society USA to invent a suicide formula that uses common household ingredients: a potion Nitschke calls the "peaceful pill."
In a 2001 Q & A on National Review Online, Nitschke was asked who would be eligible to receive his suicide concoction. His answer is macabre, even by surrealistic Hemlock standards:
All people qualify, not just those with the training, knowledge, or resources to find out how to "give away" their life. And someone needs to provide this knowledge, training, or resource necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved [and] the troubled teen. . . . The so-called "peaceful pill" should be available in the supermarket so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing.
For anyone with any moral sense, Nitschke is clearly a crackpot. But he remains a hero to members of Hemlock. He was an honored guest at the organization's 2003 national convention in San Diego, where he was invited to unveil his most recently invented suicide machine. Despite being deprived of the chance to ooh and ah at Nitschke's handiwork when Australian customs authorities seized the contraption, attendees gave him a rousing standing ovation.
Which brings us back to the pending name change. According to an article in the latest issue of Choices, the name change is designed "to increase membership, to accelerate name recognition and approval, and to [facilitate] work with legislators sympathetic to our mission, who find the name Hemlock offensive and difficult to explain." In other words, the name Hemlock Society must change because it is descriptive and accurate.
Not surprisingly, the magic word "choice" is likely to be part of the new name. Among the current contenders are: End of Life Choices America (EOLCA), Voices of Choice at Life's End (VOCAL), the Final Exit Society, and the Promoting Options for a Peaceful End, which translates into the sarcastic acronym (POPE).
But a simple name change won't heal what really ails Hemlock. What these death-obsessed folk just don't get is that the word hemlock isn't what offends people; it is their nihilism. Hemlock can change its name to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir if it wants to. But that won't change the fact that a deadly poison perfectly conveys the heart, soul, and purpose of the organization.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.