Hemlock Society

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Hemlock Society
Motto Good Life, Good Death
Type Right-to-die, assisted suicide
Headquarters Santa Monica, California; Los Angeles, California; Eugene, Oregon; combined Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado
Key people
Derek Humphry, Ann Wickett Humphry, Gerald A. Larue, Faye Girsh
Website www.compassionandchoices.org

The Hemlock Society (sometimes called Hemlock Society USA) was an American right-to-die and assisted suicide advocacy organization which existed from 1980 to 2003.

It was co-founded in Santa Monica, California by British author and activist Derek Humphry, his wife Ann Wickett Humphry (1942-1991)[1], Gerald A. Larue, and Faye Girsh. It relocated to Oregon in 1988 and, according to Humphry, had several homes over its life.[2]

The group took its name from conium maculatum, a highly poisonous biennial herbaceous flowering plant in the carrot family. The choice of the name is a direct reference to the method by which the Athenian philosopher Socrates took his life in 399 B.C. as described in Plato's Phaedo. It is not a firsthand account; the alleged event was told to Plato by one of Socrates' students, Phaedo of Elis.

The Hemlock Society's primary missions included providing information to the dying and supporting legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide. Its motto was "Good Life, Good Death".[3] In 2003, the national organization renamed itself End of Life Choices. In 2007, they merged with the Compassion in Dying Federation to become Compassion & Choices. In 2004, some former members of the Hemlock Society, notably Derek Humphry and Faye Girsh, founded the Final Exit Network.[4] It took its name from Humphry's 1991 book of the same name.[5]

Several local and state organizations have adopted and retain the Hemlock Society name, including Florida[6] and San Diego, California[7]. Others, such as the Hemlock Society of Illinois (now Final Options Illinois[8]) have changed their names.

History and chronology[edit]

Earlier right-to-die advocacy organizations, such as the Euthanasia Educational Council which formed in 1967 and changed its name to Concern For Dying in 1978, pre-dated The Hemlock Society and its mission.[9]

Hemlock was a founding charter member of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies when the international organization initiated in 1980 in Oxford, England, by Sidney D. Rosoff and Derek Humphry. Hemlock's national membership grew to 40,000 with eighty chapters.

Hemlock backed legislative efforts in California, Washington, Michigan, and Maine without success until the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was passed on October 27, 1997.

Past Hemlock Society USA presidents included Gerald A. Larue, Derek Humphry, Sidney D. Rosoff, Wiley Morrison, Arthur Metcalfe, John Westover, Faye J. Girsh. Past executive directors included Derek Humphry (acting 1980–1992), Cheryl K. Smith (1992–1993), John A. Pridonoff (1993–1995), Helen Voorhis (acting 1995–1996), Faye J. Girsh (1996–2000).

The name's origin[edit]

According to former president Faye Girsh, the Hemlock Society was founded in 1980 and named in reference to Socrates' decision to end his life by drinking Hemlock rather than succumb to an existence he found intolerable.[10] Socrates was convicted in the 5th century BC of corrupting the youth of Athens by encouraging ideas seen as contrary to the Athenian regime. Though he was sentenced to death, Socrates could have chosen exile, but chose death, an act seen as dignified and noble by many supporters of assisted suicide. This noble gesture is compounded when one considers that ingesting tincture of Hemlock is not only lethal, but a painful way to die.


  • "In the United States, the Hemlock Society alone had grown to 57,000 paid members with 86 chapters. For every paying member, there were [believed to be] 100 more people who shared the same beliefs. The self-deliverance genie had been forever freed from its bottle and had taken on a robust, self-sustaining life of its own."[11]
  • "Whatever downside there may be to Hemlock, if claims of being open to dialogue and striving for tolerance are justified on this side of the divide, the negatives may well be outweighed by the positives."[12]
  • "Those who have some indecision may have benefited from remarks by Bishop John Shelby Spong in a keynote address to the Hemlock Society USA conference in San Diego on January 10, 2003."[13]
  • "When the votes [in California] were counted after the November 3, 1992 election, Initiative #161 had failed to pass by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin. Although the narrow defeat marked a temporary setback for Hemlock Society USA and its supporters, the fact that 5,500,000 voters had marked yes on their ballots was encouraging for the future."[14]
  • "Early in 1986 the Hemlock Society, then based in California, proposed amendments to the 1976 [Living Will] law that would have included 'aid in dying' and it urged [Senator] Keene to include it in a revised bill. He declined."[15]
  • "On the other side of the battle line, the coalition [for California Prop. #161] included numerous Protestant denominations, organized labor, the state Democratic party, AIDS activists, the Gray Panthers, and, of course, the Hemlock Society."[16]

In the media[edit]

In the 2010 television film You Don’t Know Jack, which dramatizes the activism of former Oakland County, Michigan pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian, fellow activist Janet Good (played by Susan Sarandon) meets Kevorkian (played by Al Pacino) during a meeting of the eastern Michigan chapter of the Hemlock Society which Good has organized. Good later offers to let Kevorkian use her home as the location of the assisted suicide of his first patient, Janet Adkins, but later withdraws the offer because her husband Ray, a former member of the Detroit Police Department, questions the legality of assisted suicide in the state. It forces Kevorkian to use his Volkswagen camper van instead.[17] Good is later stricken with pancreatic cancer and, on August 26, 1997,[18] becomes Kevorkian’s 82nd patient. The Patient’s Rights Council website, however, states she was his 57th “victim”.[19] Oakland County deputy medical examiner Kanu Virani, however, later said Good did not have cancer.[20]

See also[edit]



External links[edit]