Derek Humphry interview from 2007

Derek Humphry interview from 2007 (transcription from MetaCreative Radio Interview)

Even though death is a part of everyone’s life, many of us don’t like to think about the reality of our own death and what events may lead to it. Because of our fear of death, talking about certain details of it can sound morbid and gruesome. The prelude to its happening varies for each individual. In the situation where we have a pet that has an advanced degree of terminal illness and suffering, we have the opportunity to choose to have a veterinary doctor provide them with a quick and painless, dignified death that quickly brings an end to their suffering. However, Oregon is the only place in the United States where a terminally ill and suffering human patient can legally pursue a physician-assisted suicide.

To answer some of my questions, about the right to die, I invited Derek Humphry on the show to find out exactly what choices we do have if we end up in a position of extended suffering at the end of life. Derek Humphry is easily the most influential pioneer in the right to die movement. He founded the Hemlock Society in 1980 and has written 15 books including the number one best seller, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying. For more information on Derek Humphry, please visit

Although I am having a conversation about possibilities of a right to choose our own death, I do believe all stages of life on earth have a purpose for learning and spiritual growth. I do not endorse ending your own life. This interview is about highly personal choices that are not for everyone to make.

Mystikka: Derek Humphry.

Derek Humphry: Hello.

Mystikka: Would you please explain the purpose of the Hemlock Society and how it came to be?

Derek Humphry: The Hemlock Society was started by myself in 1980 because so many people were asking me about their own euthanasia; how would they do if if they wanted to, and what would the drugs be and so forth. This was as a consequence of the publication in England and America of my book, Jean’s Way, which describes how I helped my first wife to die when she was suffering from terminal cancer and close to death. The Hemlock Society lasted until 2003 and then I was no longer with it, I had retired. In 2003 the Hemlock Society was merged and became an organization called Compassion and Choices. So the Hemlock Society as such, doesn’t exist now, but it had a fruitful 23 years existence.

Mystikka: You have written 15 books, correct?

Derek Humphry: Correct, yes. The last five books are about various aspects of euthanasia, historically, how to, etc.

Mystikka: And Final Exit has been your most popular since it reached the status of the number 1 best seller?

Derek Humphry: Yes.

Mystikka: How many copies have been sold?

Derek Humphry: Well over a million. Because it is sort of a how to, it is the sort of book people buy when they need it. You don’t buy it for pleasure reading, but wellness of yourself or a loved one, member of the family. That’s when people turn out and buy Final Exit to see what the various options are.

Mystikka: What does the term “death with dignity” mean to you?

Derek Humphry: It means a death in the manner of your own choosing and at the time of your choosing.

Mystikka: I know that in your books, you discourage certain methods of self-deliverance and encourage others.

Derek Humphry: Yes.

Mystikka: It seems as if you have an opposition to methods that would be violent in some way, like using a handgun or hanging yourself, or whatever.

Derek Humphry: Oh, yes.

Mystikka: Can you tell us why that is?

Derek Humphry: Well, if you shoot yourself, then somebody else has to clean up the mess. If you blow your head off or your brains out, it’s a great shock and a terrible strain on the people who have to clean up the mess. If you jump from a high building, then you might land on somebody. People have landed on a passerby and killed them. There again, it is an appalling mess which is a shock to all who see it and have to clear it away. Hanging is often a matter of protest against family, so that when family or loved ones come across the body swinging from a rope, then there is a tremendous emotional shock which is often what the dead person intended. So that’s another field. The field that I talk about, explored and proselytized about, is death with dignity, which is non-violent and bloodless. It takes place in your bed or in your favorite armchair, with the right drug in the right proportion or by the use of helium gas. But it can happen quietly in your home in the presence of someone you love.

Mystikka: What ever happened to Seconal? I know that you mentioned Seconal as a preferred method for self-deliverance in your book Final Exit. I don’t believe that it is being manufactured anymore?

Derek Humphry: It has come back on the market. There was a hiccup when I think it was changed and wasn’t available, but it is available now on doctor’s prescription for dying people. The preferred, the very best drug for ending life is Nembutal which is Pentobarbital. That again is on doctor’s prescription. Doctors won’t give it unless there is a very, very good reason. But those two drugs are the ones used in Oregon for physician-assisted suicide, according to the law we have here in Oregon.

Mystikka: Yes, that was definitely one of my questions, how are they doing it in Oregon?

Derek Humphry: Well, it is the only state in the country which has the courage to promote this. It has now been going for eight years. It has survived all the legal challenges. Our defenses were too strong. In the eight years, people have used physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, it is carefully done. There has to be two doctors signed off on it, Hospice has to be explored. There has to be documentations and witnesses and a 15 day waiting when the patient asks the doctor to help them to die and the time the doctor hands over the prescription. There have been no glitches, no scandals. It has quietly progressed. More skilled people than I have been able to study it in Oregon; who does it and why and wherefore.

Mystikka: If somebody was depressed, would that get them disqualified?

Derek Humphry: Absolutely, yes. If they were terminally ill and depressed, the law says you have to treat the depression first. If they come out of the depression and are still terminally ill, then they can be helped to die, but it is very firm in the law of depressed people and old people. There is a specific provision to say that you can’t ask for help to die just on the grounds of old age or being physically or mentally handicapped. You have to be, and two doctors have to agree, by their diagnoses that you are dying.

Mystikka: And are they doing it the same way in the Netherlands?

Derek Humphry: Netherlands and Belgium, both countries have legalized voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Voluntary euthanasia is injection of the Seconal or Nembutal. That is the quickest, fastest, surest way. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the patient can choose to drink a lethal substance, so they have either or in the Netherlands. If you look at the statistics, nearly everybody chooses death by injection because it is so much quicker, but in Oregon it’s in the substance only. You cannot have it by injection.

Mystikka: Now Nembutal - Pentobarbital is what veterinary professionals use to euthanize animals, is that correct?

Derek Humphry: Yes, it is very lethal, of course, as it will kill a horse, and it’s been used that way. So, some people travel and buy veterinary Nembutal down there and come back and put it away ready for the day when they might use it. Let me say that a lot of people read my book and a lot of people go and get the drugs or helium gas and they put it away. They are just taking out insurance that their dying won’t be painful and distressing. The majority of the men die naturally in their sleep or of their illness without needing it. But an awful lot of people these days want control and choice in case they are one of the unlucky ones with a long and painful death.

Mystikka: How does helium work exactly to shut down the system?

Derek Humphry: Well, it is a very interesting method, which I and a couple of colleagues have developed over the last five years. Helium is not flammable, it is not explosive, it is in the air and it won’t kill you, otherwise, would they sell it to children? Children are the biggest buyers of helium to blow up their balloons! But we realized that if helium was inside of a plastic bag and your head was inside that plastic bag, it would bring about instant death. In a closed, not in the open air, in a closed thing like a plastic bag over the head, helium drives out the oxygen and the helium destroys the brain instantly. You take a couple gulps of helium straight in and you are in a coma in seconds and you are dead within 4 or 5 minutes from brain death, not suffocation or anything else. So it is the most commonly used form of self-deliverance, or euthanasia In America and spreading elsewhere. It is found to be quicker, more effective and reliable and the patient does it themselves. The key to helium is that they switch the tank on and bring about their own death if they choose, and that’s not a crime. Suicide is not a crime anywhere in America. Assisted suicide can be a crime in certain circumstances. Now there is no assistance here, the patient gets the helium and puts the bag over their head, the helium goes in through a pipe, and they put the gas on if they choose to. So no crime is committed, no doctor is involved. So many doctors in the AMA are all afraid being around this subject as if death didn’t exist. The helium method is used to bring their lives to a quick and desired end.

Mystikka: With the least amount of pain possible it sounds like.

Derek Humphry: Yes, certainty. So few doctors, even in Oregon will actually be present at the death bed. If you noticed, doctors avoid death beds like the plague. Very few doctors are at the bedside of a dying person. Not like we see it in the movies of old, and that’s what we think.

Mystikka: Yes, I’m thinking about Hospices right now. It seems in Hospices, they bring about a death to the person, but very slowly with morphine and such.

Derek Humphry: Yes. Hospices only accept dying people and the usual time span is likely to die within 6 months. They do a great job of easing the pain and looking after the person and in some cases that they add morphine or some other sedative, liberally as the pain increases and the patient is both dying and hastened to die by the pain medicine. So that’s very acceptable, the Pope accepts that, the U.S. Supreme Court accepts this. So there is no perfect answer, we don’t have the perfect answer, nor does anyone else. As a matter of record, 70% of the people who use the Oregon law to end their lives are in fact in Hospice already. But try as it may, Hospice cannot master every case and dying comes in many forms, many ways and there are different solutions.

Mystikka: I know that you encourage taking personal responsibility for your own life.

Derek Humphry: Yes. I call it the “Ultimate Civil Liberty”, taking dying in the manner of your own choosing, whether it might be the old fashioned way where you are just waiting for it to come and waiting for God to take you. All I am saying is, let’s have numerous choices, legally and above board and out in the open.

Mystikka: What are the most recent legal breakthroughs in the right to die movement?

Derek Humphry: Well, the Oregon law and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed it. Holland and Belgium have legalized voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide under careful conditions. Switzerland even allows people to come from other countries to end their lives. The person has to be in a very bad medical way and they check that out before they help them to die. A lot of people recently have been flying from Canada to Switzerland to be helped to die so this goes on a lot. But, they are open. If you get an assisted suicide in Switzerland it’s immediately reported and they check into it. As long as there is no hanky panky and it is all genuine and justified, then they do nothing, it’s all out in the open - transparent.

Mystikka: If you were to give the sole power to rewrite the laws in regards to self-deliverance or physician-assisted suicide, how would you change them?

Derek Humphry: You mean across America?

Mystikka: Yes, across America.

Derek Humphry: Well, I would introduce a careful law, with plenty of protections for voluntary euthanasia, which is death by injection, and physician-assisted suicide which is death by drinking a potion. I think the day will come, it may not come for 50 years or so, but the day will come across America when people like me are irrelevant and my books are in the dust bin, and euthanasia will be a generally accepted principle of freedom. Even in Spain and Italy, the so-called Catholic countries, they have right to die groups, they translate and sell my books. In Spain they are very close to changing the law on euthanasia. In Spain they have approved gay marriage and a women’s right to an abortion and euthanasia may be next. So across the world, step by step, it is coming. My books sell in Mexico, in Korea, in Turkey. My books sell in Turkey - in translations. So there is a general, quiet up-swell of interest on this independence in dying.

Mystikka: I read your blog recently and you had a great article about Doctor Kevorkian, of his role or his lack thereof in the right to die movement.

Derek Humphry: Yes.

Mystikka: In that article you referred to him as the Lone Ranger and I thought it might be interesting if you could elaborate on that.

Derek Humphry: All the years he was operating, he would have nothing to do with me or anybody else in the right to die movement. He was a Lone Ranger. He thought he could change the medical profession and change the law. We said to him, “No, you can’t. . . You are playing your part, but you can’t do it alone, you need teams and political strategists and so forth, to change the law.” I think as a condition of getting out of prison, he had to reverse his position and say, “I will work for a change in the law and wish I had done so in the first place.” That contributed to him getting parole. I’m glad he is out. He has done long enough, He is old and in poor health. But he changed his tune. I give Kevorkian credit for bringing this matter out into the public. I was there 10 years before him talking about this and writing books and talking on television and radio. But the news media was so fascinated by a doctor with a suicide machine, who dispatched patients. You think of that concept - Wow! Whenever do you hear that? So he got enormous publicity and he did help a lot of people who deserved help to die, to die. But the publicity of course, made people aware of the matter of the subject of euthanasia, right to die, etc. So he galvanized public opinion, of that there is no question, because of his unusual position as “Doctor Death” as he was called. He made a great mistake, very deliberately. When he was assisting the suicides of people, he was three times brought to trial and was acquitted. Then he euthanized a man by direct injection, made a video of it and caught a murder charge. The minute he jumped from assisted suicide to euthanasia . . . .The authorities in Michigan were not going to do anything about that even, he went on 60 Minutes, pointed his finger at the Attorney General, the District’s Attorney, and said, “Either you charge me or I’ve won”, those were his actual words on 60 Minutes, and of course the District Attorney was there to uphold the law so he had to do it. But they didn’t make the first move, it was Kevorkian who wanted a show trial and he thought for sure they would acquit him. Anglo American law does not allow you to ask to be killed. You cannot ask to be killed as the law stands in America. And there he was with the video. What could the jury do but convict him. It was right in your face. There wasn’t any argument there, so if he kept quiet about helping that man to die with the injection, nothing would have happened.

Mystikka: So what are you doing currently with your work? How can people find you onand your material online?

Derek Humphry: I have a very busy website which is, we are a non-profit organization, and So, I keep two busy websites, I have a blog and a list serve, constantly publishing books, selling books, I find myself busy six days a week. I am 77 years old and not the spring chicken I used to be.

Mystikka: You have had a very interesting life. I was reading your bio and saw that you had won a Martin Luther King Memorial award in the 70’s.

Derek Humphry: Yes.

Mystikka: For race relations in the U.K.?

Derek Humphry: Yes, I was a journalist for years on the London Sunday Times and finished up on the Los Angeles Times. Back in the 60’s there was a lot of racial tension and problems in Brittan as there were in America. I realized that there wasn’t a book which explained the habits, cultures and background of black people to white people. This is England we are talking of specifically. White people in England didn’t know why black people were different, spoke differently, had different food. So I wrote a book explaining to white people what black people were about What their way of life was. I called it Because They’re Black. It was a very simple book, using very plain language, no academic or fancy words and that sort of thing, so that the average worker, car mechanic, whatever, perhaps could learn to live more in peace with black people, because there was so much of this tension and violence in the time in England and America. The book did win the Martin Luther King Memorial prize for 1972. It’s an out of date book now, but it had its place and use.

Mystikka: It’s an interesting part of history.

Derek Humphry: I was a journalist for 40 years and mostly I wrote about, forgive the language, “shit” subjects. I wrote about immigration, I wrote about police violence, I wrote about corruption in Scotland Yard, I wrote about people who were sent to jail wrongly; sometimes there are miscarriages of justice so I specialized in that type of thing. But it was Jean’s death in 1975 which changed my life radically. I wrote then a help kit to die. Then I wrote a little book about it and that book became so controversial, it was published all over the world and I sort of got into and began to lead the right to die movement. I didn’t ask to do so; it sort of developed out of experience and the book.

Mystikka: It just took on a whole life of its own it seems.

Derek Humphry: Yes.

Mystikka: What kind of controversy has your work created? What have people said and done to derail your efforts?

Derek Humphry: I have been called a murderer and a killer, that sort of thing by people on the Evangelical Right to Life side, though that’s died down now and that hasn’t had much effect. It has settled down now, though we are trying hard to change the law. Meanwhile people are still dying, you know, that is the natural process of life and death. So we try to make more it more comfortable and more accessible to people who want access to the right to die information. But deep down and underneath, we are sort of building a war chest and plans to change the law state by state. Assisted suicide can’t be legalized by the Federal government; it has to be done state by state. That’s the way the constitution works out. So, we’ve won in Oregon and we are going to try in Washington State before long.

Mystikka: If someone wants to become politically active to help pass physician-assisted suicide laws, how would they get started?

Derek Humphry: Look on the internet. There is the Final Exit Network, which is a national group that sends out volunteers to be at the deathbeds of people who are ending it. There is Compassion and Choices, and they do much the same work as well as legislative work. There is my group, Ergo Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization, and there is the totally politically group Death with Dignity National Center. So I think if you look on the internet, you could find the organizations, and one of which would appeal to your feelings and what you feel you could be useful to.

Mystikka: Is there anything we haven’t covered today that you would like to relay to the listeners?

Derek Humphry: No, I think you have covered most of the basis. I just hope that people will think intelligently about their right to die, the right to choose to die. One of the best things you can do is to assign a living will and power of attorney. Secondly, if I may say so, read my book Final Exit and then you can see what the pros and cons are, what the law is and so forth, and what the methods are. It is quite an easy book to read. And read other books on it and debate the matter and make up your mind.

Mystikka: Thank you so much for all of the information you have shared with us today, Derek Humphry.

Derek Humphry: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed talking to you. (That goes ditto, Derek Humphry! – Mystikka)