ATLANTA — The case against an alleged assisted suicide ring known as the Final Exit Network has revived a long-simmering debate over the right to die.
The network's president, its medical director and two other members are due in court Friday on charges they aided the suicide of a 58-year-old Georgia man who suffered for years from cancer of the throat and mouth.
Voters in Oregon and Washington have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, and a district judge in Montana ruled in December that such suicides are legal there, though the state Supreme Court could overturn that decision.
But most other states have laws that carry stiff penalties for those found guilty of assisting suicide. People convicted of assisting in suicide in Georgia can be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
Advocates of assisted suicide pounced on the arrests, saying they're a signal that there should be renewed dialogue over end-of-life choices.
Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the national advocacy group Compassion and Choices, said lawmakers should consider changes to allow those suffering with terminal illnesses to "die gracefully."
"We shouldn't make people feel ashamed for wanting a graceful exit at the end of their valiant fight," she said.
Critics, meanwhile, said the arrests highlight the drawbacks of assisted suicide groups.
"How is this not murder?" asked Stephen Drake of the group Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group for the disabled that opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.
"This is predatory. These are people who get off on being there for death. They target certain types of people," he said. "And when we make laws, when we talk about people who want to commit suicide, we're getting into very dangerous territory."
As many as 200 deaths
Georgia authorities began investigating the group shortly after John Celmer killed himself in June. Now they say the organization may have been involved in as many as 200 other deaths around the country.
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Celmer's mother says he had suffered for years from cancer, but authorities say he had recovered and was embarrassed about his appearance after surgeries when the network helped him take his life.
The group's members bristle at the term assisted suicide, saying they don't actively aid suicides but rather support and guide those who decide to end their lives on their own. Authorities, though, say the group blatantly violated the law.
Thomas E. Goodwin, the group's president, and Claire Blehr were both arrested Wednesday in metro Atlanta. They were released from jail overnight on $66,000 bond each, authorities said. The two are scheduled to appear in court Friday.
Maryland authorities arrested the group's medical director, Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert of Baltimore, and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, a Baltimore man who is a regional coordinator for the group. They were scheduled for an extradition hearing Friday.
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.
Some legal experts said they hope details of the network's work would help stoke a deeper discussion over assisted suicide. William Colby, an attorney who is a fellow with the Center for Practical Bioethics, said prosecuting the group wouldn't support that goal.
"People are trying to understand how we navigate the end of our lives, and we need to keep talking about it," said Colby. "But trying to round up people in groups on either extreme end of our social spectrum is not necessarily the best way to move public dialogue."
Georgia prosecutors will seek to prove the four violated the state's 1994 assisted suicide law, which defines assisted suicide as anyone publicly advertising or offering to "intentionally and actively assist another person" in ending their life.
To Jerry Dincin, the Final Exit Network's vice president, the prosecution is "the epitome of stupidity." And he said that the group's members didn't actively aid the suicides, but directed members to a manual called "The Final Exit" to guide them through the process.
"If this case goes to court, we'll be dealing with the notion of what is 'assistance,'" he said. "If we point somebody to a book, maybe that's considered assistance in the courts. But we don't think so."
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