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Interview With Derek Humphry

from Spandan 1996-97 Cover Story on Euthanasia

Photo Mr. Derek Humphry is a journalist and author who has spent the last twenty years campaigning for lawful physician-assisted dying to be an option for the terminally and hopelessly ill. For 35 years Derek Humphry was a journalist in Britain and America, working mainly for the London Sunday Times and the Los Angeles Times. His book, Because They’re Black (1971) won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for its contribution to racial harmony in Britain. He dropped journalism in 1980 to start the Hemlock Society and was its executive director for 12 years. In l991 Humphry hit the headlines and the bestseller lists with his startling book, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide, which sold over a million copies. In 1993 he formed ERGO! (Euthanasia Research & Guidance Organization), a small nonprofit group as the base for his low-key operations. He is 66, married and lives in Oregon, USA.

Mr. Humphry kindly consented to respond to an interview with our correspondent, conducted over the Internet.

Why do you think Euthanasia has been such a controversial subject?

Because, unfortunately, it challenges the almighty power of the Christian God, who (his followers claim) alone has the power of life and death over a person. To take one’s own life, even to avoid terrible and unbearable physical suffering, is challenging the Christian God’s authority. It is not my intention to challenge their God, but that is how they see it, sadly. More tolerant Christians -- and there are many – see their God as a deity of love and charity, who doesn’t wish to see them suffer. It is the Pope and his Roman Catholic Cardindals and Bishops who are the hard-liners against euthanasia.

What, according to you, are the most frequent reasons for a patient to want to die?

  1. Intractable Pain
  2. Indignity and Loss of Bodily Control
  3. Loss of Quality of life
Euthanasia has been give many names of mercy killing, assisted suicide, physician aid in dying, death with dignity, killing in the name of compassion, nazism, and so on. What do you consider to be the most appropriate description for it?

In the English language, 'euthanasia' means 'good death' from the original Greek. Today 'euthanasia' has come to mean a lethal injection given to a dying patient who requests it of the doctor. 'Physician-assisted suicide' means the doctor writing out a prescription for lethal drugs for a dying patient who requests it. 'Mercy killing' is the unrequested taking of another person’s life in the belief that it is a compassionate action.

Pro-euthanasia activists have always used terms like hopelessly ill, incurably ill, useless life, etc. Do you think that these terms carry any meaning?

'Hopelessly ill' means that a person is terminally ill, actually dying; 'incurably ill' means a disease which cannot be cured although the person may not be imminently dying; 'useless life' is a dreadful term which I would never use, because no life is totally useless. This was the term the Nazi’s used in Germany to murder hundreds of handicapped people in the l940s.

Who is to decide whether a patient should be Euthanized?

Only the patient, by clear and recorded request, in justifiable medical circumstances.

To date the right to die has not been made a human right. If such a provision were to be made, do you think that the poor, terminally ill or handicapped people could be forced to use it?

There must not be free-for-all, on-call assisted dying. It must be regulated by strict laws and careful guidelines. That way the poor and vulnerable in our societies will be protected. It must be absolutely and clearly voluntary on the part of everybody involved.

If euthanasia were to be made legal, do you think that doctors would quit fighting death? Would there be a tendency to label diseases as ‘terminal’?

My sense is that doctors will fight hard to avoid their patients asking for euthanasia. I know doctors who have ended the lives of many patients at their specific requests, because it was the compassionate thing to do, but the doctors find it hard to do. They only do it because they are merciful doctors and the dying patient is their friend.

Modern medicine claims to have discovered new ways of prolonging life. But unless it can provide a definitive cure, isn’t it irrational to say we are prolonging life when all we are doing is prolonging death?

In a great many cases, doctors do manage to prolong a life so that it is worthwhile for some years. That’s good. It’s when the last, terminal stage sets in that calls for good relationships with the patients and tough judgment calls. When I become terminal, I hope to use the services of modern medicine to spin out my final period in bearable fashion. If it happens to be unbearable, and my doctor runs out of solutions, then I shall take lethal drugs and ‘check out’. At least I have choices.

>> To The Final Exit Website

<< Back to Euthanasia Index

Copyright (c) 2004, Nikhil Goyal. All rights reserved.