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Right-to-Die Talk Met by Understanding, Protest : Euthanasia: Hemlock Society founder speaks at the first gathering of the group's Ventura County chapter.

January 12, 1992|PSYCHE PASCUAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was lethal conversation, laced with talk of painkillers and suffocation by plastic bag.

But for Derek Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society and best-selling author of a manual on suicide, telling others how to die is a way of life.

On Saturday, the 61-year-old Eugene, Ore., author described how, in 1975, he assisted in the suicide of his first wife, Jean, who was suffering from terminal cancer.

"That was a rational death, and I helped her," he told about 200 people at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura. In his book, "Final Exit," Humphry favors overdosing on prescription drugs, with a plastic bag as a backup. "You don't need the plastic bag if you have powerful drugs."

Humphry's presence at the inaugural meeting of the local Hemlock Society outraged a group of antiabortion activists and other protesters. Ten demonstrators stood across the street from the church carrying signs saying, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and "All Human Life Has Quality."

Humphry was unruffled by the protests. He said his book would not be necessary if physicians were legally permitted to help terminally ill patients die.

"I look forward to the day when we will trash this book," he said of his 181-page recipe for death, which sells for $16.95. "We must work with those good doctors to change the law."

Members of the statewide Californians Against Human Suffering used the meeting to organize a local campaign to put a right-to-die initiative on the state ballot in November. The group needs to collect about 386,000 valid signatures by mid-February, said Marianne Schneller, a petition drive coordinator.

A similar initiative was narrowly defeated by voters in Washington state last year.

"We feel our movement is making tremendous progress," said Peter Forchheimer, 67, a Camarillo resident who formed the Ventura County chapter of the Hemlock Society. "Our turnout today would confirm that."

The group already has a membership of about 300 people in the county, Forchheimer said, adding that he also wants to organize a support group to help terminally ill patients discuss their plans to die.

"Anyone who belongs to the Hemlock Society wants that option of doing away with themselves," he said. "Who says suicide under these circumstances is somehow immoral or evil?"

Humphry does not condone suicide for people who are depressed. Asked about the suicide last year of his second wife, Ann Wickett Humphry, he blamed her death on mental illness.

"I wish she hadn't," he said. "She wasn't terminally ill. She had severe depression problems."

The crowd that heard Humphry speak was mostly middle-aged and elderly. Some recounted stories of suffering by dying loved ones, or of having their bank accounts exhausted by the high cost of keeping terminally ill patients alive.

"My mother was ill for a while. She just died. One of my dearest friends just died of cancer," said Shirley Patten of Ventura. "At my age, 68, I do not wish to be a burden to my family, either emotionally or financially."

Madelyn Rose of Ventura said she is also convinced of the need to legalize physician-assisted suicides. As she watched her sister suffer for years before dying, she said she felt frustrated that her hands were tied by the legal system.

"She'd been ill over a period of years," said Rose, 63. "If this had been an option, it would have released her from her pain."

Although there was widespread sympathy in the audience for Humphry's message, the meeting also drew critics and protesters who were angry that no speaker was invited to represent the view that suicide is immoral.

"We shouldn't be the ones to decide. Only God decides when we go," said Kathleen Parsa of Ventura as she handed out flyers for an Ohio-based group that opposes euthanasia.

One unidentified man tried to flee with a stack of blank petitions for the right-to-die ballot initiative, but raced away empty-handed after he was confronted by a group of angry people. Others stood at the entrance of the church holding signs critical of the right-to-die movement.

"I think Derek Humphry is capitalizing on people's fear," said protester Cathy Schneir, a Thousand Oaks nurse. "I've seen many people die, and with the medication available through hospitals and through hospices, most people die a comfortable, peaceful and dignified death."

One Hemlock Society member, who did not attend the meeting because of her lung cancer, said in a telephone interview later Saturday that she joined the group in October because she could not face her illness alone.

"I saw my mother through an extremely long and painful illness, and I did not want to go through that," said the 71-year-old Ventura woman, who asked not to be identified because it could jeopardize her plans to end her life peacefully. "I would not want my last days to be spent in agony."

The woman, who also suffers from crippling arthritis, said no one knows that she is terminally ill except for her physician, her husband and a small circle of friends.

The woman said she has felt calmer since she began considering alternatives to a long, painful illness. She plans to use her last few months of life to enjoy moments with her husband, who is also ill.

"There are thousands and thousands like me," she said. "I know what my plan is. I have peace of mind because of it."

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