In 2010, four members of the assisted suicide advocacy group the Final Exit Network (FEN) were indicted in the state of Georgia for helping 58-year-old John Celmer kill himself two years after he had been diagnosed with cancer, though at the time his cancer was in remission.
Celmer died by asphyxiating on helium gas on June 19, 2008. The defendants say that two of them were present for support when Celmer committed suicide but did not help him do it. They later disposed of the helium tanks and “exit hood.” They were charged with violating the state’s assisted-suicide law, racketeering and tampering with evidence.
This Monday, in the state’s highest court, the defendants presented their case challenging the constitutionality of the assisted suicide law they were charged with violating, claiming that it violates the right to free speech. They also say that it does not really prohibit those who assist others committing suicide and that it is irrational for the law to allow someone to assist in a suicide but not to publicly advertise or offer that help.
The law, which was created in 1994 in response to Jack Kevorkian, who was making media headlines at the time for offering assisted suicide services out of the back of his van, reads thus:
(b) Any person who publicly advertises, offers, or holds himself or herself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years.
(c) Any person who knowingly and willfully commits any act which destroys the volition of another, such as fraudulent practices upon such person´s fears, affections, or sympathies; duress; or any undue influence whereby the will of one person is substituted for the wishes of another, and thereby intentionally causes or induces such other person to commit or attempt to commit suicide shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years
In a press release on Monday, several disability rights groups urged the Supreme Court to uphold the prosecution of the FEN members and expressed their concern about the highly publicized “assistance” that members of the FEN are willing to give to old, ill and disabled people who want to commit suicide.
If you ask me, the law is oddly written and does seem a bit ambiguous as to whether assisted suicide is actually against the law or not. The Supreme Court’s ruling will determine if the case goes to trial. Whatever they decide, the Georgia Legislature would do well to go back to the drawing board and draft a real, clear ban on assisted suicide, or at least clean this statute up somehow.
To find out the law in your state regarding assisted suicide, check out the Patient Rights Council’s splended summary, “Assisted Suicide Laws in the United States.”