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What happened to the pioneering right-to-die group

When Gerald Larue and Derek Humphry entered the Los Angeles Press Club on 12 August 1980 to announce to the world the formation of the Hemlock Society, there were many doubters that it could last.

After all, it was the only organization in America currently saying that assisted suicide for the dying should be seen as moral and made legal. Powerful New York groups such as ‘Concern for Dying’ and ‘Society for the Right to Die’ concerned themselves only with advance directives (Living Wills and such) and one of their leaders, hearing of the advent of Hemlock, opined that ‘America was not ready for voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide.’

They made no secret of their fear that Hemlock’s arrival would dilute the amount of fund raising that ‘choice’ organizations could do.

Also, President Reagan was just taking over the presidency with a right-wing agenda, and Jerry Falwell was in full song with his Moral Majority.

America had, it seemed, lurched to the far right, with liberals pushed aside.

“They’ll eat you alive,” said one journalist to Derek Humphry

“No,” he replied. “Ours is a long-term struggle;

Hemlock will still be around when Reagan and Falwell are gone.”

Hemlock’s shock appearance on the scene was on the evening news and in next day’s newspapers internationally.

“Are you going to be in the Yellow Pages,” a radio host asked sarcastically.

“Of course.”

When Hemlock was announced it had one member. Within a year it had a paid membership of several thousand, and records show membership was 12,927 in the far off days of 1984.

Looking back, twenty-seven years later, what did Hemlock achieve?

Gaining the wide societal acceptance of the principles of lawful, medical, voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide was Hemlock’s principal achievement. Before Hemlock’s books and public relations campaigns, the subject was pretty much taboo.

And Dr Jack Kevorkian first appeared ten years after Hemlock had opened up the controversial euthanasia field for public debate and action.

By 1992 Hemlock had 46,000+ members, had staged national and international conferences, and published five books, among them the international bestseller, ‘Final Exit’. It was at that high point that Derek Humphry chose to leave, not wanting to be a managerial executive. He resumed his career as a journalist and author yet continued frequently to speak publicly on Hemlock’s behalf.

Hemlock’s biggest achievements have been in supplying the majority of the brainpower, labor, and finance for the six state initiative voting campaigns trying to legalize doctor-hastened death. Narrow defeats in Washington state (1991) and California (1992) were followed by two victories in Oregon (1994 and 1997), a heavy defeat in Michigan in 1998, and then a narrow defeat in Maine (2000). Hemlock and its supporters provided the bulk of the seed money, and the essential mailing lists of national supporters needed for these expensive campaigns.

In Oregon, Hemlock got the ball rolling in l986 which eventually led to the passing by voter initiative of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, l994. It spread the message across the state, placed a Bill in front of the legislature (which failed but drew considerable attention), freely loaned its mailing list, and pumped in campaign money so far the tax laws would allow.

Then the directors of Hemlock decided in 2003 to change the name of the organization. The change of title, firstly to End-of-Life Choices and then to the more euphemistic Compassion and Choices, pleased some supporters, annoyed and confused others. Worst of all, the group’s huge and catchy name recognition and underlying philosophical meaning (Hemlock=Socrates=rational suicide) was lost. Membership numbers fell drastically.

Numerous of the original Hemlock hardcore people were offended at these name and style changes and immediately started a new organization, the Final Exit Network. Derek Humphry gave them permissionto use the title of his famous book for the organization.

The Network set its mission solely to help suffering people, avoiding politics, legislation, and courts. It applauded those who worked for law reform but considered that, as further legislation was many years away, what was immediately required was ‘at the bedside’ guidance by trained volunteers, as practiced in Switzerland by Dignitas.

Although the original Hemlock Society USA (1980-2003) has disappeared into the arms of Compassion and Choices, there are still three independent Hemlock groups: Hemlock of Illinois, Hemlock Society of Florida, and the Hemlock Society of San Diego. Hemlock of Illinois is affiliated to the Final Exit Network.

Fuller info at  www.finalexit.org    www.finalexitnetwork.org     www.assistedsuicide.org

ERGO Bookstore at   www.finalexit.org/ergo-store

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