Looking for help with doing yourself in? Eager to provide it, with few questions asked, is the Final Exit Network, a formerly obscure Illinois-based activist group that made national headlines last month when four of its members were arrested on charges that they helped a despondent cancer patient kill himself. The case is notable not only because of its lurid details but because it could set back a legitimate movement to help terminally ill patients die with dignity.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation alleges that the suspects assisted with the suicide of John Celmer, a 58-year-old Georgia man who had undergone head and neck surgeries for cancer. Celmer was neither dying nor in great physical pain, but was upset over the effect of the surgeries on his appearance. He was not the Final Exit Network's first client; officials with the group acknowledge that it has helped about 200 chronically ill people end their lives.
The group advocates a suicide system involving helium tanks and a plastic hood, and instructs people how to suffocate themselves. There are multiple advantages to this method: It's relatively quick and painless, and it's difficult to trace, making it look like the client died of natural causes. That protects Final Exit Network members from prosecution and may protect family members from the knowledge that a loved one has committed suicide. The group's clients may also have another motive -- defrauding life-insurance companies that don't pay out when death is self-inflicted.
Whatever the network's methods, it gives the "aid-in-dying" movement a bad name. People suffering from chronic ailments often become depressed and see suicide as a way out, but with counseling, support groups, pain management and other therapies, their desire to live can be restored. Though the Final Exit Network's website says it "encourages" such services, it doesn't push them; it's really just in the death business.
That's very different from the physician-assisted suicide that is allowed by law in Oregon and Washington, and that we believe should be allowed in California. These laws are designed to ensure that the decision is made by the patient alone, that other options are thoroughly explored, that only terminally ill patients are eligible and that doctors or insurers aren't pressuring patients to kill themselves as a way to save money.
Some opponents of these laws believe that if a state opens the door to assisted suicide, groups such as Final Exit Network will try to open it even further by demanding a loosening of the rules. But society is unlikely ever to condone the kind of ethically questionable "help" such groups offer. It's more likely that if aid in dying were legal in more states, support for the helium-pushers would diminish.