Jim Prisching/AP
Jerry Dincin, vice president of Final Exit Network.

Georgia Case Rekindles Assisted Suicide Debate

March 01, 2009 08:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Members of an organization that assists ill patients in committing suicide were arrested Wednesday, as the debate over assisted suicide continues.

Arrests Made in Assisted Suicide Case

Four members of a national assisted suicide organization known as the Final Exit Network were arrested Wednesday for aiding the suicide of 58-year-old John Celmer last June. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) conducted an eight-month investigation that culminated in an undercover agent asking the organization for help in killing himself. Authorities involved in the case allege that the organization may have assisted as many as 200 deaths around the country.

Group president Thomas E. Goodwin and member Claire Blehr, who were allegedly with Celmer when he died, were arrested in Georgia. Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, the organization’s medical advisor who allegedly determines if members meet Final Exit’s guidelines, was arrested in Maryland along with Nicholas Alec Sheridan, a regional coordinator.

According to the GBI, those wanting to commit suicide pay a $50 fee and receive information on how to commit suicide. The patient is told to buy two helium tanks and a hood, known as an “exit bag.” The “exit guides” from Final Exit guide the patient through the procedure to run helium tubes into the hood. The GBI says that “the member's hands are restrained in case he changes his mind,” reported Agence France-Presse.

The Final Exit Network, a volunteer-run nonprofit founded in 2005, has openly stated that its mission is to help those who are suffering and want to die. It has advocated for laws allowing patients the right to die in news conferences, speaking engagements and on its Web site.

But its members have also been clear that they do not encourage or actively assist in suicide; in a 2006 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Goodwin said, “We won’t help you die. We will support you in your death.”

GBI authorities say that Celmer’s condition, a cancer in the jaw, had been successfully treated, but that he may have been embarrassed by his appearance after two surgeries. Though the organization’s Web site says it requires that patients have an “incurable condition which causes intolerable suffering,” Egbert and Sheridan allegedly chose to allow Goodwin and Blehr to perform the procedure.

According to AFP, the four members face up to 28 years in prison under a 1994 Georgia law “specifically prohibiting assisted suicide.” Authorities believe that this is the first case to fall under the law.

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Background: Assisted suicide

Assisted suicide and euthanasia is a controversial and divisive topic in the United States and around the world. There are currently 36 states, including Georgia, that have laws explicitly banning assisted suicide.

Three states allow or will allow doctors to assist in the death of terminally ill patients. Oregon was the first state to legalize some form of assisted suicide when voters passed the Death with Dignity Act in 1994. A similar ballot measure was passed in November by Washington state and will take effect in March. In Montana, a district court ruled in December that the practice was legal, but the case could be overturned by a superior court.

In New Hampshire, state representative Charles Weed is sponsoring a bill that would allow doctors to give a lethal prescription to terminal patients who wish to die. According to AP, 21 state legislatures have been presented will similar bills, but none have passed.

In Europe, assisted suicide laws vary widely from country to country. Switzerland has very liberal assisted suicide laws that allow patients to end their lives with the help of non-doctors. The country has attracted patients from other countries who wish to end their lives, including English rugby player Dan James, whose suicide sparked a national debate.

Reactions: Right-to-die debate

The case has stirred a national debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia, and the Final Life Network has been widely criticized, both by those who oppose all forms of euthanasia and by those who object to its methods. Stephen Drake of the anti-euthanasia advocacy group Not Dead Yet said to the Associated Press, “How is this not murder? … [W]hen we make laws, when we talk about people who want to commit suicide, we're getting into very dangerous territory.”

The Death with Dignity National Center, an organization that advocated for the laws in Oregon and Washington, released a statement saying that it disapproved of the Final Exit Network’s actions. “Yesterday’s arrests … highlight the need for Oregon-style Death with Dignity laws for every state. The four individuals were alleged to have committed the act of ‘assisting a suicide,’ an approach to hastening death which is expressly forbidden under Oregon’s model legislation.”

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who served more than eight years in prison for performing an estimated 130 assisted suicides in the 1990s, also disapproves of Final Exit Network’s methods. Kevorkian told WDIV-TV (Detroit), “I support their aim, but … I don't support the way they're doing it.”

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