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To Kill or Not to Kill?

‘Suicide’ Groups Disagree on Who Should Die and How

BY ELENOR K. SCHOEN

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

March 29-April 4, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/20/09 at 10:29 AM

 

ATLANTA — A disturbing Georgia case exposed a rising disagreement among practitioners of the “aid-in-dying” movement.

News of a “suicide ring” there came as Washington’s assisted suicide bill went into effect in early March (see sidebar, page 10; related story, page 2) and a bill legalizing assisted suicide was introduced in Connecticut.

Startling details emerged while investigating a death by asphyxiation. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation uncovered a web of “aid-in-dying” groups around the country that have been quietly operating for the last five years.

John Celmer, 58, was assisted in killing himself by the Georgia-based Final Exit Network. The bureau discovered that the organization has 3,000 members, with 14 affiliate groups in nine states, and is possibly responsible for 200 such deaths in its five-year history.

Celmer was not terminally ill. He had survived head and neck surgeries which successfully eradicated his cancer, but which left him depressed because of the disfigurement it caused to his appearance. His physician was scheduling him for follow-up psychological treatment. He also suffered from pain due to arthritis, for which he needed hip replacement surgery.

Four members of Final Exit Network are being charged in the death of Celmer, who died by inhaling helium. Those charged in the case include Thomas “Ted” Goodwin, 63, of Kennesaw, Ga., and Florida; Claire Blehr, 76, of Atlanta; and Dr. Lawrence Egbert, 81, and Alec Sheridan, 60, both of Maryland. Goodwin, director of Final Exit Network, was also elected vice president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies in 2008.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation also discovered other Final Exit cases involving a woman in Stockton, Calif., who assisted her brother’s death — he was crippled by a series of strokes, but not judged to be terminally ill — and the suicide of a mentally ill woman in Phoenix.

Final Exit Network does not believe that “aid in dying” should be restricted to the terminally ill, but that it should be available to all who believe that their “quality of life” makes their lives not worth living.

Dr. Mark Mostert, director of the Institute for Disability and Bioethics at Regent University, said that among many groups worldwide who advocate assisted suicide Final Exit Network is “probably one of the most radical.”

Stephen Drake, a member of Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group for the disabled opposing assisted suicide, stated: “This is predatory. These are people who get off on being there for death. They target certain types of people. And when we make laws, when we talk about people who want to commit suicide, we’re getting into very dangerous territory.”

Final Exit Network’s operations have unmasked the interconnectedness of many of these “aid-in-dying” groups. Some are in agreement with Final Exit Network’s approach, and some not.

The Catholic Church teaches in the Catechism, “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons,” (No. 2277). “It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.”


Web of Players

Final Exit Network derives its name from its affiliation with Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, who wrote a how-to book on suicide entitled Final Exit. Humphry is an advisor to Final Exit Network, and runs the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization. The Hemlock Society was later renamed Compassion & Choices, much to the dismay of Humphry, in order to soften the image of what they do.

According to his blog, Humphry is fundraising for the four Final Exit Network members charged in Celmer’s death.

Humphry recently discussed his involvement in the right-to-die movement, mentioning the “two strings to my bow — legislation and informational help.” Not only had he “pioneered the Oregon law from its introduction to its passage,” but he helped finance the laws “in Oregon and Washington and failed attempts in Maine, Michigan and California.”

Final Exit sold more than a million copies and is printed in 12 languages.

As to the recent death by asphyxiation, he stated: “Not only do I approve of the ‘helium hood technique’ [used] by the Final Exit Network, but I was on the NuTech team which invented it.”

But others in the assisted suicide business are not so happy with Final Exit Network’s philosophy offering suicide help to those not necessarily close to death.

Even though Humphry founded the organization under a different name, Compassion & Choices is one such practitioner trying to distance itself from Final Exit Network. In a recent press release, Steve Hopcraft, spokesman for Denver Compassion & Choices, said that one “ought not be confused with the choice of aid in dying” and the recent cases involving Final Exit Network.

Hopcraft defines the fine line between the philosophies of Compassion & Choices and Final Exit Network as “the choice of a mentally competent, terminally ill patient [wishing] for a peaceful death via self-administering medications prescribed for this purpose” versus “the act of a distraught individual who is not dying, who may be suffering from impaired judgment or mental illness.”

He says that Compassion & Choices’ approach can rightly be referred to as “aid in dying,” which he claims has “strong and growing support among the public and among medical and health-policy professionals.” But the latter approach, which Final Exit Network employs, “is suicide,” Hopcraft declares.

Compassion & Choices has strenuously fought against using the term “suicide” — to the extent of excising the word from legislation recently passed in Washington state. Polling showed that it was found to be upsetting to people.

But even within the ranks of Compassion & Choices, there seems to be confusion on what they will allow. Barbara Coombs Lee, national president for the group, stated that lawmakers should consider changes to allow those suffering with illnesses to “die gracefully,” not allowing them to “feel ashamed for wanting a graceful exit at the end of their valiant fight,” she said.

Wesley Smith, a senior fellow with Discovery Institute for its Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, recently wrote that Compassion & Choices’ legal director, Kathryn Tucker, won a court ruling in Montana creating a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, which also frees physicians from the state’s homicide laws.

But Smith explained that “Tucker announced that she opposed Montana’s Legislature creating the kind of rules as exist in Oregon and Washington, telling the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, ‘It’s very unusual that a physician would be governed by a statute telling them how to practice medicine. Montana doesn’t need to import these laws,’ which her own group, Compassion & Choices, wrote,” Smith noted.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who, with his own death machine helped terminate many lives until he was imprisoned, ironically disagrees with Final Exit Network’s methodology and its tendency to do things “in secret.” He claimed that “laymen are involved, not physicians … which makes it slightly illegitimate, besides illegal.”

Derek Humphry believes that the Final Exit Network four will be acquitted, “no matter how long and how much it takes,” which will eventually lead to “defining the messy laws on assisted suicide throughout America.”

Smith says that the problem goes far deeper, beyond laws and medical practice, to the underlying reason driving the movement. Said Smith, “I think it is important to understand that people who are this deeply involved in helping make other people dead are what I call ‘death fundamentalists.’ They are not just selfless altruists, but act on a deep ideological belief and an odd form of twisted desire.”

Elenor Schoen writes from

Shoreline, Washington.