Interview with Faye Girsh – An Activist for the Right to a Peaceful Death

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Faye Girsh is the Founder and the Past President of the Hemlock Society of San Diego. She was the President of the National Hemlock Society (Defunct) and the World Federation of RTD Societies (Extant). Currently, she is on the Advisory Board of the Final Exit Network and the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Faye Girsh: I grew up, an only child, in a middle class, loving family in Philadelphia. Both parents had large extended families and I lived in a row house with lots of kids on our street.

My dad worked hard in his men’s clothing store,despite his longing to be a surgeon. They retired to Florida after I left Phila to go to graduate school in Boston. 

I have since lived around the country and the world. I am widowed with two great children and four grands and live in a wonderful retirement community in San Diego.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Girsh: My MA degree in Psychology is from Boston University but I glimpsed Harvard across the river and went there for a Doctor of Education degree in Human Development.

My vague plans included university teaching and raising a family which is just about how it turned out. The self-education part was big.

While teaching at Morehouse College, I did a research project on death penalty jurors which took me into forensic psychology since the study was used by the US Supreme Court and I was asked to testify in death penalty cases around the country.

I taught myself how to do psychological evaluations used by the courts to determine sentence and to select juries — both of which I continued to do.

I learned about the right to die movement and the passion about the injustice of not being able to make one’s final decision propelled me to learn all about it.

I was in private practice as a clinical and forensic psychologist in San Diego for 18 years before giving it up to run the national Hemlock Society out of Denver in 1996.

Jacobsen: As the Past President of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, what were the more troubling and the more heartwarming stories from the time as the President?

Girsh: I founded the Hemlock Society of San Diego in 1987 and we immediately were asked by the national Hemlock Society to get signatures for a ballot initiative to have physician aid in dying in Calif.

That was an exhausting — and eventually frustrating — pursuit since there was no money to continue the effort in 1988. But we did it again in 2003, collected 28,00 signatures in San Diego, got the initiative on the ballot, had no money left, but still got 47% of the vote.

Of course, we now have a Calif law permitting aid in dying passed by the legislature in 2016.

Jacobsen: Now, with the tenure complete, what is the next step for you?

Girsh: My forte is not in administrative details but in risk-taking and moving the issue ahead. I did that with the Caring Friends Program, now the thriving Final Exit Network, and with the Hemlock Society of San Diego.

I am not sure how to accomplish this but it is absolutely necessary to expand the Oregon model of aid in dying, now 20+ years old to include non-terminal people.

I would like to see our law look more like the law in Canada which includes voluntary euthanasia, as well as self-administration of medication. And I would like to see doctors more involved and even have non-doctors trained to provide a peaceful death.

Jacobsen: What were the largest successes and honest failures from the time as the President?

Girsh: My two successes were the founding of Final Exit Network, a national organization using a model different from the Oregon law involving trained volunteers providing information and support to people in their homes at no charge.

And the Hemlock Society of San Diego, now in its 32nd year, informing people about their end of life choices at our monthly meetings and on line with these programs available to watch on our web site (hemlocksocietysandiego.org) Failures?

We tried to develop a San Diego, then a national, program for Patient Advocacy but the model we chose was not utilized by our members. It is still needed since so many things happen to patients at the end of life that could be prevented by trained advocates.

The major problem existing all over the world is Dementia in all its forms. Many of us would like to be able to die before or as the disease runs its horrible course.

So far a person must be mentally competent to get help, in most places. This must change so that a person could get help to die even if not competent but lapsing into the moderate or severe stages of this life-shattering illness.

Jacobsen: What is California’s End of Life Option Law (Right to Die Law or Physician Aid in Dying)? Why was this important, and is this salient, for end of life planning and options for Californians?

Girsh: With 40 + million people in California, getting this law passed here was a major accomplishment. The law is more restrictive than most people would like, it is rare to find a doctor to do it, and it is too costly but it has been a godsend.

It enables people to determine their own way to a peaceful death, to have a celebration of life while alive, and to not endure the pain, dependence, and indignity which often accompany the last stages of dying. It works for those people who are eligible, can find a compassionate doctor, and can afford the medication. 

Jacobsen: What are some of the terms and phrases floating around: the right to die, euthanasia, dying with dignity, and medical assistance in dying, and so on? What differentiates each of these, aside from, potentially, sociopolitical concerns?

Girsh: The plethora of terms is confusing. In the seven jurisdictions where aid in dying is legal, but medication is self-administered, it is referred to as Medical Aid in Dying, Physician Aid in Dying, and Death with Dignity.

Our opponents like to call it “assisted suicide” even though every statute specifically says it is NOT “suicide” for insurance purposes or on the death certificate. We strongly believe in suicide prevention when the reason for choosing death is not a rational one.

Where a direct injection by a doctor is permitted (Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) it is called Voluntary Euthanasia, also MAID (Medical Aid in Dying.) The word “euthanasia” must be preceded by “voluntary” to apply to what we want in our Right to Die movement.

The “right to die” is more generic and means that each individual should have the right to choose a peaceful, dignified death consistent with his or her own values, and with assistance.

Jacobsen: Who are some of the luminaries of the movement? What is some essential reading on these subjects pertinent to the mission and mandate of the more than 30-year-old organization?

Girsh: Derek Humphry is the founder of the Hemlock Society, now head of ERGO (Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization) and about to retire. But still very productive and living in Oregon.

Dr. Michael Irwin, also in his late 80’s, is a leader in Europe and was the founder of SOARS (Society for Old Age Rational Suicide), an important concept that remains pressing today. My hero is Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who openly helped 130 people have a peaceful death. 

Dr. Rob Jonquiere, Executive Director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies is one of those early Dutch doctors who defied the law and now holds the world’s right to die organizations together as Executive Director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies.

And Dr. Philip Nitschke, the first doctor in the world to legally provide voluntary euthanasia and a vocal advocate for choice, now in Holland. His web site: 

The Peaceful Pill Handbook (on line and in print) is helpful as is Derek Humphry’s book, Final Exit, now in its 3rd edition and in 13 languages.

Jacobsen: Who tends to be the main opposition to the right to die, and so on? What human rights provide the basis for the personal choice in, arguably, one of the most important decisions individuals make in their lives?

Girsh: The Catholic Church has invested the most money, propaganda, resources into opposition and now includes other groups, including the Mormons and evangelicals.

Also some elements of the disability community, most obvious and vocal is Not Dead Yet. Opposition to choice at the end of life is highly correlated with frequency of church attendance.

The Canadian constitution has wording to protect human rights as does the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I have a concern about the teachings of Islam which seem to be opposed to end of life choice. In Holland, as I understand it, the Islamic community disdains even Advance Directives.

South Africa, where this is a burning issue right now, also has a constitution protecting human dignity. In the US the Supreme Court in 1997 overruled two lower courts stating that there is not a constitutional right to assisted dying, but that it is a matter to be decided by the states. (That year the Oregon law went into effect.)

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Girsh: It is comforting to look at the accomplishments of the last 30 years and feel that dying is much better than, say the 1970s, or in other countries without the laws we have.

But it is discouraging to realize how far we have to go before people get the choices they would need to die to retain their dignity and control.

The Catholic Church continues to wield enormous power and are taking over community hospitals where even advance directives are not honored. Hospices are good but resist including aid in dying as an option for their patients.

Dementia is an epidemic and warehousing for those patients is a growing industry. More people are defining life in terms of quality not quantity which is good, while medical science is inventing ways to prolong life, and prolong death, so that we have become an aging society with many in nursing homes.

We have a long way to go to educate the public about choices in dying, about defining “life”, and about making the end less agonizing for patients and their families.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Faye.

Girsh: Thanks for these very thoughtful and provocative questions, Scott. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by mauro paillex on Unsplash

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