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Suicide kits rekindle debate on assisted suicide

/ Source: The Associated Press

The door to the room was locked, and there was no response as Jake Klonoski knocked, looking for his younger brother.

He picked the lock and made a grim discovery: his dead brother lying on the bed, his head covered in a plastic bag connected by a tube to a helium tank. He had gassed himself to death using a suicide kit he learned about online and ordered through the mail from a woman in California.

"Somewhere in her cash register is a check for $60 from my brother for his life," Jake Klonoski said of the suicide kit vendor.

The death of 29-year-old Nick Klonoski has prompted Oregon lawmakers to consider outlawing the sale of suicide kits as they respond to a disturbing twist on the assisted suicide debate in the state. Law enforcement officials are also looking into the 91-year-old woman who sold the "helium hood" that killed Klonoski, with agents raiding her California home on Wednesday.

The Oregon legislation would make it a felony to sell or transfer "any substance or objects to another person knowing" that person plans to use it to kill themselves. The proposal unanimously passed the Senate earlier this month and the House is looking at tightening the bill's language to make it easier to prosecute.

Klonoski suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for years and was often depressed, his brother said.

Activists have long argued about a person's right to take their life, and what exactly it means to assist them. In the late 1990s, Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian brought the debate into American homes by airing his assist of a suicide on "60 Minutes." Now that debate, and its ethical implications, is being rekindled by the increasing use of helium hood kits.

"Until recently nobody would have thought, 'Gosh we have to define the word assisting,' because it was just kind of, like, duh," said Rita Marker, executive director of Patients Rights Council. "But now someone says, what does assisting really mean?"

In 1994, Oregon became the first state to enact a law that lets terminally ill people end their lives with a physician's assistance, with voters approving the policy twice. Physician-assisted suicide is also legal in Washington and Montana. Oregon law mandates multiple doctor consultations and looks at possible psychological evaluation before such a suicide can happen. The state says 65 Oregonians took their lives under the law in 2010.

But the laws are often vague and provide little detail as to what "assist" or "aid" means.

While the Oregon physician-assisted suicide law requires people abide by certain rules and consult with a doctor, the ready-made kits can be ordered by anyone, with no checks to their background, through the mail or phone.

Sales of suicide kits are often propelled by online sites, with blogs that explain how to get a kit and YouTube videos that demonstrate how to use one. The contraptions provide tools that can be found in most hardware stores: a plastic bag, clear tubing. The equipment is mailed in a white box smaller than a shoebox, with a butterfly sticker on it. Helium tanks can be easily bought at a local party store.

Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association for Suicidology, a suicide-prevention organization, calls mailing the kits immoral and equivalent to "basically handing someone a gun" without a cursory check to their history or whether they are a minor.

Sharlotte Hydorn, 91, is founder and owner of The GLADD Group, or Good Life And Dignified Death, that sells the kits. She said she isn't responsible for who uses the kit and is only trying to help people in pain. She has been in business for three years and said she now sells up to 60 kits a month.

"They could bring me to Oregon, and an attorney told me as long as I'm not in the room and telling a person to take it and shut up, that you know, I'm not committing anything," Hydorn told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

On Wednesday, Hydorn said federal agents raided her El Cajon, Calif., home, seizing computers, her sewing machine, and boxes of suicide kits as evidence. Hydorn said she was being accused of mail fraud.

She said she will be seeking legal counsel, and is considering having people send ID to avoid selling to minors.

FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth confirmed agents were at the home and had served a search warrant as part of an ongoing investigation. He would not comment on the contents of the warrant.

For years, "right-to-die" activists have tiptoed around anti-assisted suicide laws by seeking legal counsel and ensuring they follow certain protocols when dealing with someone looking to commit suicide. The Final Exit Network, which has 3,000 members nationwide, provides support to people seeking to commit suicide.

"The protocols are you don't touch anything when you're at somebody's bedside, and you're not allowed to provide anybody with any implements, any hood or bag, or if it's someone who intends to use drugs, you don't provide any drugs," said Robert Rivas, general counsel of the network.

The network has faced legal battles over whether their support breaks assisted-suicide laws in Arizona and Georgia, and has filed papers challenging the constitutionality of the Georgia law.

Legislative efforts have also been in the works to define suicide assistance. The U.S. House of Representatives is looking at making it a crime to use the Internet to encourage a person to take their life, based on the case of 19-year-old Suzy Gonzales in California. The college student killed herself in 2003 after following instructions online.

"Americans love to buy things off the shelf and readymade, rather than do it themselves, and make it themselves," said Derek Humphry, of Junction City, Ore., the man behind many of the online suicide sites, blogs and books, and a longtime activist in the assisted suicide movement. He was also part of the team that put together the first suicide kit back in the 1990s.

"We designed it specifically so the person was the person responsible, nobody else had to assist," said Humphry, 81. "The person who made and sold the bag is not criminally liable. The person did it themselves, you see."

There are no hard statistics on suicides using a helium hood, primarily because the gas quickly dissipates from the scene and can be difficult to detect. Right-to-die activists say hundreds of such deaths have occurred over the last decade in the United States and all over the world.

Final Exit Network has "exit guides" who remove materials after a person has committed suicide, rearranging the body so death appears natural.