Humphry, (Ann) Wickett

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Humphry, (Ann) Wickett

(b. 16 June 1942 in Belmont, Massachusetts; d. 2 October 1991 near Bend, Oregon), college professor and vocal right-to-die advocate who cofounded the Hemlock Society in 1980.

Wickett Humphry was the only child of Arthur J. Kooman, a banker, and Ruth Fenderson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Shakespearean scholar. She was born and raised in Belmont, a residential suburb of Boston. She graduated from Boston University in 1964 and went on to receive a master’s degree in 1973 from the University of Toronto and a doctorate from the University of Birmingham in England in 1977. She was an adjunct professor of English language and literature at Putney College in London, England (1976-1978), and later at Occidental College (1978-1979), and the Art Center College of Design (1978-1981), both in Los Angeles, California. She met Derek Humphry, a British journalist and social activist, while studying in England. The two wed on 16 February 1976.

Humphry’s first wife, Jean Edna Crane, had suffered from breast cancer and had died in March 1975 at age forty-two in a suicide assisted by her husband. Shortly after their marriage, Wickett and Derek Humphry published Jean’s Way (1978). The work, a chronology of Humphry’s twenty-two-year marriage to Jean, recounts the circumstances leading up to the detection of her cancer and the facts surrounding her assisted suicide using a strong mixture of secobarbital and codeine prepared by her husband.

While living in Los Angeles in 1980 and crusading for new laws to enable physicians to aid voluntary suicide victims without fear of prosecution, the Humphrys established the Hemlock Society, the first such organization in North America. The Hemlock Society, dedicated to what the Humphrys called “assisted suicide” and “self-deliverance” for the dying, is named after the cup of poisonous herbs from which the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Socrates was forced to drink by his enemies. Many critics of the Hemlock Society point out the irony that Socrates was indeed a victim of “involuntary” euthanasia. Yet by 1990 the once minuscule Hemlock Society had grown to nearly 30,000 members in fifty-one U.S. chapters. Its growth was the subject of dissension, but the obscure organization saw its controversial message become more widely accepted as a result of the AIDS epidemic.

In early 1980 the Humphrys printed and edited the Hemlock^ Quarterly and the Euthanasia Review. In 1986 they published The Right to Die: Understanding Euthanasia, an extensive history of euthanasia and a widely used reference book. Two years later the Hemlock Society privately published Double Exit, an ostensibly fictionalized account of an elderly couple’s assisted suicide. The couple was, in fact, Wickett Humphry’s parents. Ann Wickett and Derek Humphry had illegally impersonated physicians to procure deadly doses of a foreign-made barbiturate (Vesparex). According to accounts from the American Life League’s ProLife Encyclopedia, the two aided the parents in swallowing the lethal drug. Although Wickett Humphry’s ninety-two-year-old father may have been ready to die, she knew that her seventy-eight-year-old mother, who had struggled against forced feeding, was not. This firsthand experience of her parents’ death may have been a turning point in her activist support for mercy killings.

The Humphrys moved the Hemlock Society’s headquarters from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon, in 1988. The regret of her role in her parents’ death, along with the news of her own breast cancer in 1989 and her husband’s subsequent “abandonment” (her word) of her, led Wickett Humphry to question mercy killing publicly. She saw it not as a sympathetic remedy for suffering but as a “deadly deception” that often led to additional suffering. As her aversion to the Hemlock Society mounted, she formed a covert friendship with the head of the anti-euthanasia forces, Rita Marker, an outspoken opponent of Derek Humphry. Wickett Humphry confided not only her dissatisfaction with the policies and philosophies of the Hemlock Society and her belief that society-backed legislation might be too dangerous as it would allow anyone of any age to enter a euthanasia clinic, but also her attitudes toward her marriage and bitter divorce.

By 1989 the Humphrys were engaged in public accusations. Wickett Humphry blamed her husband for deserting her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and claimed that he had labeled her “mentally incompetent” and threatened to expose her involvement in her mother’s death. He countered with assertions that the marriage had been rocky for years and that Wickett Humphry had told him that she had attempted suicide in the early 1970s. He contended that he had not left her because of the cancer, which he publicly announced was in remission in 1990. As the Humphrys’ bitter public divorce escalated, public opinion began affecting the image of the Hemlock Society. To counter such negativism, the society’s board removed the couple from their leadership positions in January 1990. Although Derek Humphry was replaced by a national president when it was determined that his efficacy as a spokesman for the “humane right to die” had been undermined by his wife’s assertion of his abandonment, the board reap-pointed him to perhaps a far more important role, executive director. Wickett Humphry was not reappointed.

Wickett Humphry continued to undergo chemotherapy and breast reconstruction and to endure the psychological impact of the disease, and she felt more isolated than ever. On 1 October 1991 at age forty-nine, on the verge of receiving her pilot’s license after winning a battle with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration over the effects of the drugs she was taking for her cancer, she set into motion the events that led to her death. According to obituary accounts, Wickett Humphry spent the morning on her correspondence. As time passed, her mood apparently shifted and she hastily left her home, the fifty-acre Windfall Farm, about twenty-five miles north of Eugene. She drove 100 miles into the Oregon wilderness, where she parked, saddled her horse, and rode another three miles up a trail veering off into the forest. Her body was found on 8 October 1991 near the Three Sisters Wilderness. Her suicide by an overdose of barbiturates was confirmed the next month by the state medical examiner. Conflicting reports of Wickett Humphry’s disease, said to be in remission; her mental state; and the possible collapse of a $6 million lawsuit against her ex-husband and the Hemlock Society continued to stoke the fires of euthanasia advocates and opponents.

Ironically, it was the son whom she had given up for adoption as the result of a failed relationship in the early 1970s and who had finally located her in the fall of 1991 who helped recover his mother’s ashes from a mortuary in Bend. In accordance with her wishes, Wickett Humphry was cremated and her friends scattered her ashes at night near the pond at her farm.

Ann Wickett Humphry’s suicide raised more questions than it answered, including the extent to which euthanasia proponents might go to extinguish another person’s life. Initially, Wickett Humphry and her husband were in agreement ideologically that “an individual’s right to live and die in the manner of his or her best choice is the ultimate civil liberty.” By 1989, she acknowledged that she was exhausted by the “world of death and dying,” fearful of giving physicians a “license to kill,” and concerned that the right to die could become the “pressure to die.” Derek Humphry continued to espouse a person’s right to assisted suicide and to advocate the passage of laws to protect patients’ and physicians’ rights in such matters.

Derek Humphry’s 1991 best-seller, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, immediately generated a heated national debate that was intensified by Wickett’s action. One physician hailed it as the possible “landmark book on the subject of self-deliverance and assisted suicide.” Still, a major opponent of the movement was heard most dramatically. The day before her death, Wickett Humphry had accused her ex-husband of “applying unwelcome pressures” after her diagnosis of cancer. A typewritten note left for him read in part: “You got what you wanted. . . . You have done everything conceivable to precipitate my death.” Was her own “final exit” aimed at “pulling the plug on her ex-husband’s right-to-die movement,” as her critics have claimed? Or was she pleading for someone like Rita Marker, who wrote the 1995 book Deadly Compassion: The Death of Ann Humphry and the Truth About Euthanasia, to take up her new crusade against the “deadly deception” of mercy killings?

Rita Marker, The Death of Ann Humphry and the Truth About Euthanasia (1995), gives an insight as to why Wickett Humphry changed her feelings about euthanasia after her own involvement in her aging but not terminally ill parents’ deaths. A biographical sketch, “Wickett, Ann 1942— ,” Contemporary Authors, vol. 122 (1988), also provides information. Robert Reinhold, “Right-to-Die Group Is Shaken as Leader Leaves His Cancer-stricken Wife,” New York Times (18 Feb. 1990), gives an inside look at the once obscure Hemlock Society. For an article about Wickett Humphry’s disappearance and suicide, see “Advocate for Suicide Group Found Dead,” New York Times (10 Oct. 1991), and Garry Adams’s article in the Los Angeles Times, “A Bitter Legacy: Angry Accusations Abound After the Suicide of Hemlock Society Cofounder Ann Humphry” (23 Oct. 1991). In “A Fight to the Death,” New York Times (9 Dec. 1991), author Trip Gabriel looks at a videotape of Wickett Humphry made on 1 October 1991, just days before her suicide. A compassionate and protective letter by Wickett Humphry’s only child, Robert W. Stone, can be read in Vanity Fair (Mar. 1992).

Ellen O’Connell Brasel