- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

A person seeking to commit suicide places an “exit hood” over his head and inflates it by turning on a tank of helium as the gas fills his bloodstream. After a few breaths, he loses consciousness. Ten to 15 minutes later, he dies.

The question now is whether four members of an assisted suicide organization facing criminal charges in a Georgia man’s death actively helped him kill himself or merely gave him guidance about how to do so himself.

The distinction is still being hammered out by state, district and federal courts, legal experts say.

“There’s not a big body of case law that distinguishes between the two,” said William Colby, an attorney who is a fellow with the Center for Practical Bioethics.

“The reason society set up criminal laws was to stop behavior that many of us find inappropriate for civilized society,” he said. “That’s very clear in a murder, but it’s far less clear in a situation where medical technology is deeply involved in sustaining our lives.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that it was up to the states to regulate medical practice, including assisted suicide.

Rules vary from state to state - Oregon and Washington allow doctors to help terminally ill people kill themselves, while other states impose penalties, up to five years in prison in Georgia’s case. A judge in Montana has ruled that doctor-assisted suicide is legal there, though that could be overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Georgia on Wednesday charged four members of a group known as the Final Exit Network with assisted suicide in the death of John Celmer, 58, who suffocated himself north of Atlanta in June. A state law passed in 1994 defines assisted suicide as anyone publicly advertising or offering to “intentionally and actively assist another person” in ending his or her life.

John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the network may have been involved in as many as 200 other deaths across the country since it was founded in 2004. Fourteen sites in nine states have been searched as part of the investigation.

Leaders of the network describe the process they promote as a humane and compassionate way of ending the lives of those suffering from incurable conditions.

The group offers guides who will hold the hands of people who decide to kill themselves and - authorities say - make sure they don’t pull the “exit” hoods off their heads. But members insist they don’t actively help with suicides.

Georgia authorities say assisted suicide cases are often difficult to prove, but the network is different because it’s an organized group with clear guidelines and policies that an undercover agent was able to infiltrate.

Instead of trying to prosecute, for example, a husband who made the gut-wrenching decision to help his terminally ill wife die, they’re going after people who barely knew Mr. Celmer.

Prosecutors say he was recovering from cancer and merely embarrassed about his appearance after several surgeries, and family members say they are glad authorities are “zealously” pursuing the case.

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