Friday, February 27, 2009

Assisted Suicide or Death Cult?

The arrest of four members of the group "Final Exit Network" in Cobb County earlier this week has catapulted the issue of assisted suicide back into the news, this time in a much more ghoulish light.

The founder of the group, Thomas “Ted” Goodwin of Florida and Kennesaw, says he personally helped 35 people in the past four years commit suicide using helium, according to the affidavit. Though Goodwin is not a doctor, he owns a medical testing lab in Kennesaw, OHR/Medical Dimensions.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Goodwin, 63, Wednesday in Dawson County in North Georgia as he was taking a man, an undercover agent, through steps that would have led to the agent’s death.

Authorities said Final Exit instructs a person who wants to commit suicide to pump helium from a 50-balloon tank into a plastic bag pulled over his or her head. The person suffocates, but there’s no trace of helium left in the body to indicate a suicide.

Sounds benign enough until you consider A. some of the 130 people this group claims to have helped die may not have been terminally ill, and B. members of the group may have been "actively participating" in helping the person suffocate.

According to court documents in the case, Blehr detailed each step of the process to an undercover agent who infiltrated the group claiming to be interested in committing suicide.

Blehr told the agent that he would place the hood on top of his own head, like a shower cap, and then inflate it by turning on the helium tank. After a few breaths, she told him the ''lights would go out.''

The guides would then let the helium tanks run for 20 minutes after they last felt his pulse to make sure he was dead. They would also stand by his side to ensure he didn't pull the bag off his head, according to the documents.

Jerry Dincin, the Final Exit Network's vice president, disputed the claims made in court documents.

''That's nonsense,'' he said Friday. ''We hold your hand because we feel a compassionate presence means you hold someone's hand. They need to be with someone in their last minutes. No one pulls off any hood. This method is so quick and so sure and so painless.''
So one person's "holding someone's hand" to offer comfort is another person's "ensuring they don't pull the bag off their head" to ensure death (and allegedly criminal behavior).

This seems a long way from physician-assisted suicide as practiced and advocated by Jack Kevorkian (though his response to the arrests of these Final Exit people is puzzling). The entire point of physician-assisted suicide is to have a trained physician, in a preferably clinical setting, administer death via lethal injection. It may be the same process we use to put down our condemned, but it's a relatively clinical and methodical approach.

What's described in the court documents sounds like the opposite: risky, makeshift, and carried out by "advocates" with no medical training and a desire to "hold the hand" of the person while they asphyxiate with a bag over their head.

Most people favor choice when it comes to safe, clinical end-of-life procedures for the terminally ill and suffering, but this group's actions strike many as some bizarre "crew of euthanists."

We should reserve judgment until we know the facts of the case (despite the "Heaven's Gate"-looking mug shots which have been published). But the debate on assisted-suicide and euthanasia is certainly going to be around for some time.

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