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Arrests Revive Debate Over Assisted Suicide

A law allowing physician-assisted suicide took effect Thursday in Washington state, the second state in the country that permits this, along with Oregon. But in many other states — such as Georgia — assisting in a suicide is a crime.

Recently, prosecutors in Georgia charged four members of a group called the Final Exit Network with assisting in suicides. Investigators say the group could be involved in the deaths of as many as 300 people.

An Undercover Sting

John Celmer's family was furious after they found pamphlets and books linked to the Final Exit Network. They knew the 58-year-old man had been depressed because of cancer that had attacked his jaw bone, but he was recovering and not terminally ill.

So authorities set up a sting in which an undercover agent posed as a man with pancreatic cancer who wanted to die.

The agent made contact, filled out an application and then received calls and was visited by members of the Final Exit Network to go over what would transpire, according to John Bankhead, spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Bankhead says the agent was instructed to buy an "exit bag," which looks like a shower cap that would be pulled over his head, and two tanks of helium.

"The helium that's used, in essence, cuts off the oxygen supply, and so you suffocate," Bankhead says. "It might take 12 to 10 seconds to pass out, but according to the medical examiner, those few seconds are an eternity."

The day of the arrests, a group member called an "exit guide" rehearsed the assisted suicide with the agent.

"He got on top of the agent while the agent was lying on a bed and held down both hands so the agent couldn't move," Bankhead says. "And that's the issue here at hand. You're not talking about someone trying to explain how to commit suicide. You're talking about a group that's actively involved in the process itself."

Four Charged On Multiple Counts

Officers executed search warrants in 14 locations in eight states, including Georgia, Florida, Maryland and Colorado. Four members of the group have been charged with assisting in a suicide, racketeering and tampering with evidence by removing equipment.

"We think it's a human right in the 21st century to terminate your own life," says Jerry Dincin, a clinical psychologist and president of the Final Exit Network. He denies that members are actively involved in anyone's death.

"They don't hold anybody down — definitely don't hold anybody down," Dincin says. "We do hold people's hands. We're not interested in people dying if they don't want to die. We are only interested in being there with people who are convinced that their quality of life is so bad that they don't want to live anymore."

Dincin says the group has about 3,000 members across the country.

He acknowledges that Celmer, in Georgia, was a member who had several surgeries that left him with a deformed face; he says Celmer didn't want to live that way.

"His illness was of such a nature that he himself couldn't stand the quality of life that he had, and it probably wasn't going to get better," Dincin says.

The Debate Over Assisted Suicide

According to an affidavit, Celmer's wife was cleaning up when she found papers documenting the group's involvement in her husband's death and two editions of the book Final Exit. The network recommends the book to members considering whether they want to end their lives.

Another group, Compassion & Choices, lobbies for physician-assisted suicide laws. The group's president, Barbara Coombs Lee, says outdated laws criminalizing assisted suicide are to blame for this group's practices.

"People of the Final Exit Network are kind of testing the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable in these very vague, broad assisted suicide laws," Lee says. "But there are better ways to make laws than to wait and see what people do on their own, and then go to a court and a trial and a jury and see if that broke the law or not."

More than half of the states in the U.S. have laws that criminalize assisted suicide. As of Thursday, Oregon and Washington are the only two states to pass laws that allow physician-assisted suicide.

Bill Colby of the Center for Practical Bioethics says this demonstrates how murky the law really is.

"It's not in many areas where we have a question, 'Is the same action a crime, or do we in fact have a constitutional right to that activity?' " Colby says. "Again, the law sets boundaries, but my sense is, at the end of life, that questions about prosecution are a little grayer."

The courts are likely to spend a lot of time considering the difference between telling or showing someone how to kill himself, and what it means to actively assist in a suicide.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kathy Lohr
Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.