Derek Humphry, the main founder of the Hemlock Society, was born in Bath, Somerset, southwest of London, England, on April 29, 1930. His childhood was not a happy one. At an early age, after his parents divorced, his mother left him to marry an Australian. He did not see her again until he was 23, but their re-acquaintance was short-lived. She announced, suddenly: “I am going back to Australia. You come and visit me.” But she left no forwarding address. He never saw her again, though he placed ads in magazines hoping to track her down, and even journeyed to Australia in a futile attempt to find her.
As a young boy, and living with his aunt, he was forced to write letters to his father who was “away at work somewhere.” He discovered years later that his letters found their way to a prison where his father was serving time for fraud. After Derek left school at 15, he entered the profession of journalism, starting as a messenger boy and quickly moving up the ladder.
He married Jean Crane and fathered two sons by her. While in her early 40s, she contracted incurable breast and bone cancer. The manner in which she died, in 1975, remains intensely controversial. In his memorial to her, Jean’s Way, he meticulously describes her suicide and his role in assisting her. He recounts how he helped her in dying by providing her with drugs he obtained from a sympathetic doctor. He mixed her coffee with secobarbital and codeine, handed the concoction to her and sat by her side as he watched her drink it. Two pillows were nearby. He intended to smother her if the drugs did not kill her: “I had decided that with the first stirring of life, I would smother her with them.” He informs his readers, however, that he did not need the pillows since the drugs took effect less than an hour after she ingested them. Humphry’s second wife, Ann Wickett, who, ironically, also contracted beast cancer and ultimately took her own life, left a suicide note that contradicts Derek’s allegedly passive role in Jean’s death. According to the note, Ann accuses her former husband of suffocating Jean. She also indicts him as an accomplice in her own demise. “What you did,” she wrote to Derek, “desertion and abandonment and subsequent harassment of a dying woman – is so unspeakable there are no words to describe it.” Humphry, as expected, vehemently denied these accusations. He does, however, admit to assisting in the double suicide of Ann’s parents and of determining the day on which his wife Jean would die.
During their protracted honeymoon in 1976, Derek Humphry and his wife, Ann, collaborated to write Jean’s Way, a book that chronicled his relationship with his former wife and her alleged suicide. It was published in 1978. That same year, the couple emigrated to the United States where Derek took a position at the Los Angeles Times. Two years later, together with Gerald Larue, they founded the Hemlock Society, an organization dedicated to promoting euthanasia
In March of 1991, he wrote his magnum opus – Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying. This latter work was slow in winning acceptance. Initially, editors and journalists at magazines, newspapers, and TV stations ignored it, despite a barrage of letters sent to them extolling the book’s virtues. Humphry himself admitted that the 300 review copies dispatched resulted in not a single review. But the book’s chief publicist was undaunted. Finally, the book received some notable attention. The Wall Street Journal ran a feature provocatively titled, “Suicide manual for terminally ill stirs heated debate.” It was like setting a match to tinder. There is no substitute for controversy in getting the public’s attention and swelling sales. The remainder of the 41,000 copies of the first edition (the vast majority of them) sold out in just a few days. By September, it was the best-selling book of all types in the United Sates. When Spring arrived in 1992, Final Exit had been translated into a dozen foreign languages.
Final Exit is a book that reifies death and treats it as if it were something positive. Like Jack Kevorkian, Humphry sees “self-deliverance” as a positive act. Given this metaphysical presumption, he can then talk blandly and matter-of-factly about death. Since he regards it as a good, it should no longer be an object of fear. Consider the casualness with which he offers the following bit of advice:
“If you are unfortunately obliged to end your life in a hospital or motel, it is gracious to leave a note apologizing for the shock and inconvenience to the staff. I have heard of an individual leaving a generous tip to motel staff.”
He classifies a chambermaid’s unexpected encounter with a dead body in her room as being an “inconvenience.” Spilled coffee and scattered newspapers would create an “inconvenience.” Stumbling upon a corpse would likely be traumatic. How generous should a tip be to reduce a trauma to a mere inconvenience? (And is a dying person even eligible for generosity when he gives away money he cannot possibly spend?) This is not a matter that reason can, or even should try, to calculate. Reading through Final Exit, one begins to get the sense that Humphry is using the term “rational” as a synonym for “cold-blooded.” “Graciousness,” need we suggest, is not compatible with arranging that your dead body be found by a motel employee.
Humphry blithely inserts himself among those who might achieve their own final exit: “Should you use a clear plastic bag or an opaque one? That’s a matter of taste. Loving the world as I do, I’ll opt for a clear one if I have to.” Death has lost its terror. Killing oneself or assisting another to die is a choice, akin to going on a vacation or selecting a dessert. That reason could be so rational as to overpower emotions and displace normal human sensibilities, is not only unreasonable, it is inhuman. Dr. Leon Kass cautions Humphry’s readers not to be “blinded by blandness,” but to see that “this self-appointed messiah is indiscriminately and shamelessly teaching suicide (and worse) to countless strangers.”
Humphry claims that hundreds of people have used the information he provides to kill themselves. A 79-year-old Illinois woman who had severe arthritis (but was not terminally ill) killed herself by overdosing on prescription drugs. On her nightstand was a copy of Final Exit. In response to the circumstances surrounding her death, Humphry commented, “It bothers me not one whit that a terminally ill person would be found with this book on her nightstand. That’s what this book is for.” The Province, a Vancouver newspaper, reported the suicides of three people in the span of a single week, all linked to Final Exit. Said British Columbia chief coroner, Vince Cain, “That book, in my view, is a facilitator of suicide.”