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Georgia arrests revive assisted-suicide debate

A sting nabs members of Final Exit, a group that tells sick people how to end their own lives. Assisting suicide is illegal in most states, but several are considering bills to change that.

February 27, 2009|Richard Fausset

ATLANTA — The man told Thomas Goodwin he wanted to kill himself to end the pain of pancreatic cancer. But first he wanted to go downstairs to get a photograph of his wife.

So Goodwin -- president of Final Exit Network, one of the nation's most prominent assisted-suicide groups -- waited in the bedroom for the man to return.

Instead, Goodwin was surprised by agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who burst in and arrested him Wednesday. They also opened a new front in a resurgent war over assisted suicide.

While other right-to-die activists nationwide have been fighting for -- and in some key cases recently, winning -- the legal right to assisted suicide, volunteers from Goodwin's 5-year-old nonprofit organization have focused on quietly visiting the bedsides of sick Americans and offering suicide instructions, which they prefer to call "guidance to self-deliverance."

Using a system that incorporates helium tanks available at many party supply stores and a plastic hood, the group has helped about 200 people in pain end their lives peacefully, according to Derek Humphry, chairman of the group's advisory board.

The Georgia sting, in which an agent posed as a cancer victim, comes a decade after the homicide conviction of Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan doctor and well-known assisted-suicide advocate who administered a lethal injection to a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease in 1998. Kevorkian's eight-year prison stint lowered the national profile of what had been a white-hot ethical and legal debate.

But the issue has begun heating up again. In November, voters in Washington made their state the second, after Oregon, to legalize physician-assisted suicides. A month later, a judge in Montana legalized the practice as well; the state is appealing the decision. A legalization bill was introduced in the Hawaii Legislature this year, but it will not get a hearing. Similar bills are pending in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New Mexico.

In many places, however, assisting a suicide remains a criminal act; in Georgia, it is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Opponents of assisted suicide are hailing the arrest of Goodwin, along with three other members of the group who were also charged, as a much-needed victory for the status quo.

Assisted-suicide foe Rita Marker said she expects Americans will find the details of the group's methods "grotesque."

"There's no dignity in getting a plastic bag over your head," said Marker, executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, an Ohio nonprofit group.

But some proponents also welcome the arrests, saying they hope the ensuing legal fight will help tear down remaining anti-suicide statutes.

"We will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court," said Humphry, the author of "Final Exit," a bestselling suicide manual from which the group took its name. "This could be the seminal case on which the law turns. And we take encouragement from the fact that three states have already got it. So why shouldn't the rest of America have it?"

John Bankhead, a GBI spokesman, said the sting operation helped investigators verify the methods used by the Final Exit group. Technically, however, the criminal charges stem from the June 19, 2008, suicide of John Celmer, a 58-year-old cancer patient from Cumming.

According to an affidavit filed by investigators, Celmer was "cancer free at the time of his death," although he was embarrassed about his appearance after surgeries for head and neck cancer. He also suffered from arthritis.

The Final Exit website, www.finalexitnetwork.org, clearly outlines the criteria for those who want help from the group's volunteers. One is: "You must have an incurable condition which causes intolerable suffering."

The affidavit outlines the detailed process the group uses to determine whether someone is eligible for house calls from the group's "exit guides." It also outlines the group's alleged involvement in Celmer's death.

Celmer apparently wrote to the group in May, saying he wanted to die using the helium method. In the letter, he said he would "pathetically" take "measures into my own hands" if they didn't come to his aid. In compliance with one of the group's rules, he also wrote a summary of his medical history and included some medical records, which investigators said were forwarded to Lawrence Egbert, 81, a Baltimore doctor and the group's medical director.

After Celmer's death, his wife found one of the letters as well as release forms he had signed for the group. Celmer's family called authorities, and in a subsequent taped phone call with Celmer's son, Final Exit member Claire Blehr, 76, of Atlanta, said that she and Goodwin, the president of the Atlanta-area group, had been with Celmer when he died.

In another call, Goodwin explained the helium method in detail and said he had thrown the tanks and plastic hood into a Dumpster in Acworth, Ga.

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