When reports of Al Purdy’s death appeared on April 21, 2000, they stated that the renowned poet, who was suffering from metastatic lung cancer, had died in his sleep. Yesterday, Toronto Life published a posthumous article by John Hofsess, founder of the Right to Die Society, who claims that Purdy did not die a natural death, but made a conscious decision to forestall his ongoing suffering, assisted by Hofsess and his partner, Evelyn Martens. According to the article, Hofsess and Martens administered Rohypnol as a sedative before delivering a lethal dose of helium gas to end the poet’s life. This occurred, Hofsess writes, with the full consent of Purdy and his wife, Eurithe.
In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the country’s ban on assisted dying was unconstitutional, and gave the federal government a year to draft a new law (that deadline was extended by four months in January 2016). But in 2000, when Purdy died, assisted suicide was an outright crime, punishable by severe penalties.
The maximum penalty for assisted suicide was 14 years in prison. I was raising the stakes: by giving Al a pre-death sedative, my actions could be construed not as assisted suicide but as premeditated, first-degree murder, with a mandatory life sentence. Looking into his eyes, respecting his intellect, hearing his wishes repeated over time, knowing him to be an independent person and thinker, I needed no further assurance that he, in a rational state, had authorized me to be his agent and partner in ending his life. All he would have to do was sip his wine and say farewell to the love of his life, while his favourite music played quietly in the background. I felt honoured that he delegated the technical details to me.
The Toronto Life piece includes a photograph of a letter Purdy sent to Hofsess in 1999, in which the poet provides “a brief synopsis” of his illness, and states his hesitancy to “propose [his] death very strongly,” since his wife was adamant about exploring alternative options.
By early 2000, Hofsess writes, Purdy had become determined to end his suffering, and had apparently secured the agreement of Eurithe.
Hofsess, who claims in the article to have had Purdy’s full consent about going public with the circumstances surrounding the poet’s death, himself died in Switzerland on Feb. 29, 2016; he had been suffering from “two terminal illnesses (pulmonary fibrosis and prostate cancer) and an unstable heart,” and went to Basel to end his life, because, as he says, the “latitude of Swiss law appeals to me – laypersons are permitted to assist voluntary deaths – and I wish to end my life in the company of good people.” He claims to have been working on an ebook, The Future of Death: True Stories About Assisted Dying, which will be made available through Canadian Humanist Publications.
Though he remained a passionate advocate for assisted dying to the end of his own life, Hofsess’s career was not without controversy. In 1993, he had a very public falling out with Sue Rodriguez, an ALS sufferer who challenged Canada’s ban on assisted dying, after she accused him of forging a letter claiming that prominent members of the ALS Society were not supportive of her.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Toronto Life and Q&Q are both published by St. Joseph Media.