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My long-time journey fighting for choices in dying

By Derek Humphry

Original article: July 02, 2019

With my 90th birthday looming, I’m beginning to assess the past, tidy up things and clarify some lingering issues.

I have been described as the ‘founder of the right-to-die movement.’ Not quite! More accurately, I am the founder of ‘the ‘modern American right-to-die movement.’

When I pondered in 1979 starting a movement to make self-deliverance at life’s end a well-informed action, and also legalize medical aid-in-dying, there were already two established groups in America –- Society for the Right to Die and Concern for Dying -- I sought their cooperation but was turned away. (The CEO of the second organization wrote that she hoped I’d fail!) Both groups confined their work to promoting Advance Directives (aka Living Wills). A few years later they faded away.

I announced the arrival of the Hemlock Society USA in August 1980, meeting with a mixture of support and scorn. My office was my garage in Santa Monica and financing was the royalties of my new book ‘Jean’s Way’. There was no staffing for the first three years. After lots of hesitant answers, I drew together a board of eight so as to legally form a California nonprofit organization with IRS acceptance.

The 1980s was a time of bombings of abortion clinics, Ronald Reagan coming to power, and Jerry Falwell in full cry from the far right. “You’ll be destroyed,” said the cynics, to which I replied: “I’ll be here when they’re long gone.”


People of goodwill often ask me why I’m still fighting for this hot-button cause after 40 years?

The first answer is of course that it is a basic human liberty to have control over how one dies if the final stages are painful and distressing. Such a noble cause, hitherto neglected, had strong appeal to me, as it does to many others.

Secondly, at 50 years old, I was an experienced investigative journalist and nonfiction book author, accustom to appearing on radio and television debating issues like race relations, police corruption and terrorism. So, I knew what a cauldron was getting into! Plus, not being a doctor I was not hindered by professional rules and ethics.

I had not intended ‘Jean’s Way’ to be campaigning book, but that is what it turned out to be. Published in six languages, it gave me sound credentials as someone who had actually ‘been there’.

(Although not intended as the pointer, Jean’s chosen manner of hastened death turned out to be approximately the way the death with dignity laws in eight US states came to be framed. Jean was a very practical person.)

Becoming a leader of the right-to-die movement enabled me to (1) fight for reform in a field I sensed was coming to the fore, as were abortion rights, gay rights and same sex marriage. And (2) use my background as a writer and speaker to promote this vital but contentious issue.

‘Final Exit’ Shock

I had already co-authored two books on the history and philosophy of euthanasia (with modest sales) but hit an unexpected controversy with my 1991 book “Final Exit”. Initially no publisher in USA or UK would at first touch it, so I published it myself under Hemlock’s imprint.

At first sales were mostly to Hemlock members but when the ‘Wall Street Journal’ published an article describing it as ‘a suicide guide’ the book instantly climbed to the Number One best-selling nonfiction hardback in America. No one was more astonished than me at this blockbuster.

The first print edition sold 550,000 copies, earning Hemlock over $1 million net of expenses. In many bookstores, customers lined up in the mornings to snatch the day’s deliveries! And Hemlock’s membership rocketed. Hemlock’s book earnings enabled it to finance (to the extent permitted by law) the upcoming citizen voter initiatives to legalize physician-assisted dying. To seed the campaigns Hemlock contributed a total of $1,202,000, also freely lending them its large mailing list.

Like Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and Ralph Nader’s ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, it was a break-through book on an emerging social issue. Cynics predicted that the book’s popularity would cause the suicide rate to rocket. Yet data showed a year later that it had not done so, plus more suicides were less violent.

‘Final Exit’ still sells consistently, worldwide, in updated editions after 29 years in print. Probably close to two million copies have been sold in hardback, paperback, eBook. Translated into 13 languages, it is also extensively pirated on the internet. Most libraries have it.

All On Record

For 20 years the Allen Library at the University of Washington in Seattle has been building America’s largest archive of right-to-die materials. All documents, newsletters and books from Hemlock are included. Keep the Allen Library resources in mind when people are doing serious research.

My greatest personal reward from 40 years involved in this movement has been meeting and working with the finest, most selfless and generous bunch of Americans. I elected to immigrate here from the UK in 1978 (now a citizen) and have never regretted it. The darker side of America has not personally touched me, although I am keenly aware of it.

This swansong notwithstanding, I’m still helping our cause, aiming to be on the scene for as long as possible until my end.

Derek Humphry’s memoir, ‘Good Life, Good Death’ (Skyhorse, New York, 2017) is on Amazon or (signed by author) at https://

©2019 Derek Humphry