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Troubled by the Hemlock Society’s Antidote for Suffering

My friend had been ill for a long time. But when he told me he was going to die, he still could sit up in his chair.

We were alone in his study, a small, warm room with a wall of books, a desk and a few chairs. Scattered around were the tokens of a long and productive life in one of the learned professions, and of his achievements as a successful author and widely admired teacher.

That day, however, he talked of how his lengthy illness had begun to claim him. “There are parts of me,” he said, “that have started to . . . well, shut down. I’m in a great deal of pain. I have to wear a respirator for most of the day now. Soon, I won’t be able to work or write or lead anything like what either of us would recognize as a life. All I’ll have left is my illness--and that’s the only thing in the world that really bores me.”

For those reasons, and because his physicians had told him there was nothing that reasonably could be done, he said he had decided to take his own life.

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“When?” I asked.

“Soon. Not tomorrow, but soon. That’s why I wanted you to know.”

The next time I saw him, he no longer could sit. He lay supine on a pallet that had been arranged in the living room. Beside him were his word processor and a telephone, but it was clear that even conversation had become more of an effort than a diversion.

“You know,” I said, “as silly and as vain as it sounds, I thought that maybe if I could concoct enough interesting things to talk about, you might forget this whole thing. But it’s not going to work, is it?”

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“No.”

He still was curious, however, about what I thought of his decision.

“It’s strange,” I said. “By education and conviction, I ought to be horrified and repelled by what you’re planning. I’m troubled, but I’m neither of those things. That makes me uneasy. I can’t decide whether I’ve been seduced by our friendship or have reconciled what I believe with what I see.”

“Would you like to talk me out of it?”

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“Would it work?”

“No.”

And so we smiled and talked and held each other’s hand.

A few weeks later, a member of his family called to tell me he was dead according to his own plan.

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If Americans’ current taste in books is any indication, thousands among us may soon confront situations much like the one I have described. For the past two weeks, the best-selling nonfiction book in the United States has been a sort of how-to manual of suicide entitled “Final Exit: the Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying.”

Bookstores across the country report that they cannot keep “Final Exit” in stock. Four leading Los Angeles stores told me this week that they sell out within days of each new delivery. At Dutton’s, owner Doug Dutton told me, “the demand for this book has been remarkable. It’s been far and away our best-selling nonfiction book for some time.

“Most of the people who come in and request it are elderly; some obviously are ill. We’ve even gotten a number of calls from other cities, places like Fresno. They ask that we mail them the book. Whether that’s because it’s unavailable in their communities or they don’t want to be seen buying it there, I really don’t know.”

“Final Exit” is published by the Hemlock Society, a pro-euthanasia group that was founded by the book’s author, Derek Humphrey. He is an English immigrant and former journalist who once helped his terminally ill wife commit suicide.

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But despite its provocative subject and profound implications, “Final Exit” is a rather dreary example of the American crank’s traditional refuge, the self-help treatise. Incongruously, its artless language avoids the vocabularies of both moral and scientific reasoning in favor of that of the consumer society. Choice and quality are its only real proper nouns.

In “Final Exit,” lives and poisons are measured according to their “value” and set in ranks. Deadly combinations of prescription drugs are compiled like so many recipes in back of a decorating magazine. Curious assertions are presented as ethical maxims.

In a chapter defending the decisions of perfectly healthy husbands and wives to join their terminally ill spouses in suicide, a person identified as “the eminent philosopher Joseph Fletcher” says: “We should look at every case on its merits and refuse to be bound indiscriminately by universal rules of right and wrong, whether they claim to rest on religious or pragmatic grounds.”

Perhaps most disturbing, “Final Exit” proposes that its principles

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form the basis of a broad popular movement that would amend existing laws to allow the routine assistance in suicide by doctors, nurses and others. Washington state will vote on such a measure in November.

Reaction to such proposals by doctors, medical ethicists and religious leaders has been swift. Last week, for example, a committee of Catholic bishops issued this statement: “To destroy the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from long-standing traditions of our country, posing a threat of unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society.

“Those who represent the interests of elderly citizens, persons with disabilities and persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses, are justifiably alarmed when some hasten to confer on them the ‘freedom’ to be killed.”

That, I think, is true. But the fact remains that individuals from all those groups are weighing the possibility of asserting, rationally and with deliberation, their own freedom to kill themselves. How shall we think of them? The Hemlock Society seems to deem them pioneers of a heroic future; charitable traditionalists may perceive them as victims of a culture corrosive to moral reasoning; others may see them as practical, suffering men and women much like any other.

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Not long before he died, my friend and I spoke one last time on the telephone.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Not very well,” he said. “But we know how I am--and how I’m going to be. How are you?”

“Troubled,” I said, “still troubled.”

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