The recent arrests of four members of the Final Exit Network in Georgia have drawn more national attention to the issue of assisted suicide. According to The Times' March 23 editorial, "Sense and suicide," the organization has been involved in about 200 deaths across the country. This group has advised, consulted and even allegedly had its counselors facilitate suicides using helium tanks and plastic bags. Investigations in many of the cases have led authorities to question just how involved officials of the Final Exit Network were in the deaths of its members.
The Times says that the Final Exit Network does harm to the kind of physician-assisted suicide currently legal in Oregon and Washington. Such laws were heavily promoted by the group Compassion and Choices, a national organization that works for assisted-suicide legalization. It was a key player in the legalization efforts in Washington and Oregon as well as in failed attempts elsewhere around the country, including California.
While the groups may have different tactics, the goals of the Final Exit Network and Compassion and Choices are practically the same. Both want to see assisted suicide expanded to anyone who perceives himself to be suffering, and the relationship between the two groups goes beyond their shared cause. According to the timeline on Compassion and Choices’ web site, the group formed in 1980 as the Hemlock Society; it later merged with another organization to become what we now know as Compassion and Choices. Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry is a member of the Final Exit Network's advisory board and author of the book, "Final Exit," first published in 1991. Both Compassion and Choices and the Final Exit Network are active members of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies. The only real difference between the two groups is the way they seek to expand assisted suicide.
Both Compassion and Choices and the Final Exit Network take the definition of "intolerable suffering" beyond terminal illness. They believe that a person suffering from a condition that he or she believes is unbearable (rightly or wrongly) should legally be allowed assistance in ending their own life, whether by inhaling helium from a tank or overdosing on barbiturates. This is a frightening prospect for people with disabilities, particularly those who think they may be burdens on their family and for those of us fighting for disability rights.
If, as The Times writes, there may be growing societal tolerance of expanding this practice, it is not an intellectual stretch to argue that people perceived by themselves or someone else to be undergoing "intolerable suffering" should have access to assisted suicide. Given our current economic climate, the lack of adequate healthcare for many and the stigma placed on those with chronic disease or disability, I do not share the faith in society or in our politicians such laws require. This dubious fight waged by the Final Exit Network and Compassion and Choices equates to dangerous public policy and places far too many vulnerable people in harm's way.
For The Times to write about the Final Exit Network, "Society is unlikely ever to condone the kind of ethically questionable 'help' such groups offer," is naive. When this issue was before the California Senate's Judiciary Committee two years ago, then-state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) voted against the bill and said that he "could not resolve the risk that the power of money will ultimately define [assisted suicide's] parameters." To me, Dunn has a more realistic view of society than The Times.
Stanton J. Price is a health lawyer and member of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s Bioethics Committee, which he recently co-chaired.