The Real Hemlock Society
By
Not Dead Yet

 

Introduction

The Hemlock Society in the United States has been in existence for 17 years and has an estimated 25,000 members. It is the oldest organization advocating for the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia on this continent. Therefore, special attention should be given to what its leaders have been advocating in regard to euthanasia - as it turns out, the words and actions of Hemlock leaders often involve a more radical agenda than the
public image of the organization would indicate.

A survey conducted by the Hemlock Society of its own members reports that 82% would extend assisted suicide to people with non-terminal but "hopeless" conditions. In recent months, official press releases and legislative proposals made by the organization and its members have become increasingly broad in scope, even including involuntary euthanasia. In spite of this, Hemlock's public image continues to be that it advocates a right to an
assisted suicide only for those who are "already in the dying process."

The Story of Elizabeth Bouvia

The history and past actions of the Hemlock Society and its founders show remarkable congruency with the latest actions and releases of the organization.
For example, Hemlock co-founder Derek Humphry states in his book, Final Exit:"What can those of us who sympathize with a justified suicide by a handicapped person do to help? When we have statutes on the books permitting lawful physician aid-in- dying for the terminally ill, I believe that along with this reform there will come a more tolerant attitude to the other exceptional cases."

The story of Elizabeth Bouvia is instructive as a way of understanding the goals and values of the Hemlock Society and its supporters. Writing about the Bouvia case, Humphry expressed Hemlock's support of the right to voluntary euthanasia for "a person terminally ill, or severely handicapped and deteriorating..." Hemlock Quarterly 14 (1984). But Ms. Bouvia was not "deteriorating." Cerebral palsy is not degenerative. The open-ended term "deteriorating" can be made to mean almost anything in order to justify a disabled person's suicide.

Bouvia had been through a series of devastating ordeals in the two years preceding her request for help in ending her life. The graduate program in social work at San Diego State University violated her federally protected civil rights. Reportedly, one of her professors told her she was unemployable and that if they had known just how disabled she was, they would never have admitted her to the program. So Bouvia dropped out of school, and the state Dept. of Rehabilitation repossessed her wheelchair-lift-equipped van. Instead of urging her to fight this discrimination, Richard Scott, her attorney and Hemlock co-founder, declared publicly, "Quadriplegics cannot work."

Meanwhile, she married and kept her marriage secret from social-welfare authorities in order not to run afoul of the "marriage disincentives" that would have cost her essential financial aid. She got pregnant, had a miscarriage, separated from her husband, decided to divorce him, and learned that her brother had drowned and that her mother had cancer.

At this point, Bouvia checked herself into the psychiatric unit of Riverside County Hospital and said she wanted help to die.

Bouvia's lawyers, led by Richard Scott, distorted the nature of her disability, likening her to a terminal patient. "Were Plaintiff Bouvia an 84-year-old woman whose life was prolonged solely
by various tubes and numerous machines," they argued in the Riverside Superior Court, "and she sought to end such an existence, it is doubtful that this Court would even be involved...Plaintiff should not be denied that same right merely because she is 26 years of age and does not yet require a
machine or machines (other than her wheelchair) to prolong her pitiful existence." Plaintiff's Memorandum, Bouvia v. Riverside County, 14.

A wheelchair is not a life-prolonging machine, nor will Bouvia's cerebral palsy ever require her to use such machines. Advocates of assisted suicide prejudicially twisted the facts of disability to make their case.

Scott brought in a doctor, a psychiatrist, and an educational psychologist to evaluate Bouvia. The young woman reported to them the emotionally devastating experiences of the preceding two years. She also said she wanted to die because of her disability. Ignoring all of the emotional blows and discrimination, they concluded that because of her physical condition she would never be able to achieve her life goals, that her disability was the
sole reason she wanted to die, and that her decision for death was
reasonable. The psychologist was Faye Girsh, the current president of the National Hemlock Society.

Hemlock's Definition of "Dignity" More recently, Janet Good, the late president and founder of the Michigan Hemlock, was interviewed by the Washington Post. Good also attained some
notoriety by collaborating with Jack Kevorkian in ending the lives of some individuals with non-terminal disabilities.

Washington Post, August 11, 1996: "Pain is not the main
reason we want to die. It's the indignity. It's the
inability to get out of bed or get onto the toilet,
let alone drive a car or go shopping without another's
help. I can speak for literally hundreds of people whose
bedside I've sat at over the years. Every client I've
talked to - I call them 'clients' because I'm not a
medical professisonal - they've had enough when they can't
go to the bathroom by themselves. Most of them say, "I
can't stand my mother - my husband - wiping my butt.'
That's why everybody in the movement talks about dignity.
People have their pride. They want to be in charge."

Many people with disabilities need such assistance in the bathroom, assistance which they direct and control, assistance which they do not regard as undignified. It's a dying shame that Ms. Good doesn't convey a more respectful attitude towards her "clients." Instead she reinforced and lethally acted out the devaluing attitudes of our society, telling sick or disabled people they lacked dignity because they needed assistance with basic
activities of daily living, and would be better off dead.

Have we really gotten to the point in this country that we will sanction and abet the suicides of people because they can't wipe their own behinds? Too many people have internalized society's contempt as self-hatred. Too few have had contact and on-going support from other members of this nation's largest minority group, people with disabilities. The fact that Janet Good thought this justified facilitating suicides shows what little progress we
have made in rooting out disability prejudice and disability phobia.

Ms. Good's colleague, Jack Kevorkian, openly expresses even greater contempt for sick and disabled people. He sees us as a drain on society. He told a Michigan Court in August 1990: "The voluntary self-elimination of individual and (sic) mortally diseased and crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare."

Recent Press Releases

Apparently encouraged by public apathy toward Kevorkian's blatant bigotry and public sympathy toward Robert Latimer, the Canadian who killed his 12-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy, the Hemlock Society took a bold step in December 1997, more openly in communicating their full agenda. Below are excerpts from a press release issued by Hemlock on December 3, 1997.

"The Hemlock Society USA advocates that a suffering person at the end of life should be able to receive compassionate help from a physician to end his or her life if that is the (sic) wish."
*********************************
"Unfortunately, our proposal has been enacted as law in only one state -- Oregon. Even with such a law, there are many people suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses who beg either to have their lives ended or who are not competent to make this decision and are in those instances assisted by a loved one." (emphasis added)
*********************************
"We suggest that, if these cases are to be prosecuted, they should be treated as special crimes of compassion and evaluated separately. The criteria might include the person's wishes to die, the person's medical condition, the family's concurrence, the alternatives available, and the motives of the person being tried."
*********************************
"In the case of a minor or an incompetent adult, the law now allows life or death decisions to be made by a designated health care agent and/or a family member in most jurisdictions. ... some provision should be made for a situation in which life is not being sustained by artificial means but, in the belief of the patient or his agent, is too burdensome to continue."
(Emphasis added.)
*********************************
"A judicial determination should be made when it is necessary to hasten the death of an individual whether it be a demented parent, a suffering, severely disable (sic) spouse or a child." (Emphasis added.)
*********************************
(Source: Press Release, Hemlock USA, Dec. 3, 1997)

In a press release issued on July 23, 1998, Faye Girsh, executive director of the Hemlock Society, stated that the organization's efforts would continue "until every person with an incurable illness and unbearable suffering has a legal way to request and receive a hastened death." The word "terminal" is now increasingly absent in similar statements describing Hemlock's mission.

Hemlock's Proposed Legislation

Until recently, the Hemlock Society's web-site offered the "Harvard Model Law", drafted by prominent Hemlock members and published in the January 1996 issue of The Harvard Journal of Legislation. In an introduction to the Act on their web page, Hemlock called it "an example of a well thought out and
detailed statute." The "model law" does not limit the "right" to assisted suicide to terminally ill people close to death, but instead uses "intractable and unbearable illness" in its eligibility criteria. According to the authors of the model law, the term describes a "bodily disorder (1) that cannot be cured or successfully palliated, and (2) that causes such severe suffering that a patient prefers death." Obviously, many non-terminal disabilities fit this broad definition. Newly disabled people would be especially endangered. The "model law" also legalizes euthanasia in addition to assisted suicide.

Hemlock supporters in New Hampshire reintroduced a bill last year that corresponds closely to the broad "model act." House Bill 1433-FN, entitled "An Act relative to physician aid-in-dying for certain persons suffering from a terminal condition," includes a unique definition of "terminal condition". The bill defines a terminal condition as "an incurable and irreversible condition, for the end stage of which there is no known treatment which will
alter its course to death, and which, in the opinion of the attending
physician and consulting physician competent in this disease category, will result in premature death." The wording of this bill would allow for the legalization of an assisted suicide for anyone at any stage of an illness or disability that is expected to shorten the individual's life span. It is a definition of terminal illness that clearly includes people with most types of severe disability.

"The Unspoken Argument"

Now it's been spoken---in "Freedom to Die - people, politics, and the right-to-die movement" by Derek Humphry and Mary Clement. Chapter 21, titled "The Unspoken Argument," advocates the economic benefits of euthanasia.

"Similar to other social issues, the right-to-die movement has not arisen separate and distinct from other concurrent developments of our time. In attempting to answer the question Why Now?, one must look at the realities of the increasing cost of health care in an aging society, because in the final analysis, economics, not the quest for broadened individual liberties or increased autonomy, will drive assisted suicide to the plateau of acceptable practice." (p. 313)

The excerpt below deals with the justifiable horror and dread that people feel toward the possibility of being incarcerated in a nursing home. But Humphry and Clement's *solution* is very different from ADAPT's and other disability rights groups:

"Surveys have consistently found that most people would rather continue to live at home rather than in a nursing home. What has not been known until recently, however, is that the aversion to "such a facility is so strong that a new study of seriously ill people in hospitals found that 30% of those surveyed said they would rather die than live permanently in a nursing home." (*) This information begs the question: Why do we, as a nation, not allow
these people to die, if they have no alternative to a nursing-home existence and this is what they want? Their lives would conclude with dignity and self- respect, and one measure of cost containment would be in place." (p. 319) [* The Age, 10 Dec. 1996]

What happened to in-home services and hospice? They must not meet the cost-containment goals of the white-well-off-worried-well members of Hemlock and its allies. (According to a Hemlock survey, the median income of its members is $52,000.)

Conclusion

The statements and actions noted above are neither stray, nor taken out of context. Right-to-die leaders, time after time, have demonstrated the same willingness to promote this final "solution" to the problems of people with disabilities. Taken together, these words and deeds mark a clear and consistent pattern - one that includes promotion of euthanasia and
extermination of people with disabilities.

Nevertheless, leaders of the pro-euthanasia movement still often falsely claim that their concerns are only for those with terminal illness. Their messages are tailored to specific audiences and vary greatly depending on the immediate political climate. Not Dead Yet calls on Hemlock, its leaders and its allies, to come forward, to clearly state their complete agenda and open it to honest debate.