ATLANTA (AP) - A former assisted suicide network leader being prosecuted in a Georgia man’s death is defending his group’s practice of guiding people who want to kill themselves because they’re suffering but not necessarily dying.
At least three of the people known to have commited suicide through the Final Exit Network were not terminally ill. In his most extensive remarks since his arrest last month, Ted Goodwin told The Associated Press Tuesday that people with just months to live aren’t the only ones who should be able to seek help committing suicide.
“These people who are terminally ill are blessed in a small way _ there’s a finite time for their suffering,” said Goodwin, who stepped down as president of the network after his arrest. “But there are many, many people who are doomed to suffer interminably for years. And why should they not receive our support as well?”
Critics within the right-to-die movement, including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, say people should be able to seek assistance ending their lives, but only from doctors and only if they’re terminally ill.
Georgia authorities say John Celmer, the 58-year-old man whose suicide led to charges against Goodwin and three others, was making a remarkable recovery from cancer when the group sent exit guides to his home to show him how to suffocate himself using helium tanks and a plastic hood. And police say that in 2007, the group helped an Arizona woman named Jana Van Voorhis who was depressed but not terminally ill.
The third person, Kurt Perry, a suburban Chicago resident who was to have been the group’s next suicide, has a debilitating neurological condition that is painful but usually not fatal. The 26-year-old said frightening breathing lapses prompted him to seek support from the network.
“Having them there with me would be a blessing and an honor,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
He was set to die Feb. 26, one day after Goodwin and the others were charged with violating Georgia’s assisted suicide law. But he has since changed his mind, saying the arrests have given him new reason to live and help the group with its work.
The network has drawn criticism from those who worry it isn’t screening those who want to die carefully enough.
“You want to be sure before anyone is going to do anything like this that they’re getting the best possible end-of-life care,” said Dr. Timothy Quill, a professor of medicine at the University of Rochester and a supporter of Oregon and Washington laws that allow doctors to help terminally ill people end their lives.
Goodwin, who is not a physician and founded the group in 2004 after his father died of emphysema, says the network helped guide nearly 200 people across the country die to but never actively assisted suicide. He says he was personally involved in 39 deaths.
The arrests were the result of an eight-month investigation in which an undercover agent posing as someone bent on suicide infiltrated the group, which bases its work on “The Final Exit,” a best-selling suicide manual by British author Derek Humphry.
Goodwin would not comment on the suicide process, but disputed Georgia authorities’ contention that guides held down members’ hands to prevent them from removing the hoods they placed over their heads while they breathed helium.
“We do not hold hands down. We do not cause them to suffer,” he said. “And this will be proven in a court of law _ I promise you.”
Authorities have also questioned how carefully the group, which claims 3,300 members and donors and about 100 volunteers, screened people who want to commit suicide.
Goodwin says the vetting process was tightened in 2007, after questions about Van Voorhis’ death.
Goodwin defended the group’s involvement, saying Van Voorhis suffered from other illnesses, but people who sought help after her were asked to detail their complete mental history.
About 30 percent of the applications the group received each year were from mentally ill people who wanted to die because of a lost job, lost spouse or other anguish. Those applications were immediately set aside, Goodwin said.
If an applicant’s mental history raised a concern, which happened occasionally, one of 10 psychiatrists or psychologists working with the group visited to assess the situation.
But if it didn’t, Goodwin said, the applicant got help, even though the group knew its work could one day lead to prosecution.
“We believe that it is the right of every mentally competent adult to determine whether he or she is suffering,” Goodwin said. “We do not believe this should be left to the physicians, church leaders or politicians. This is the right of every mentally competent individual to make this decision themselves.”
Associated Press Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner reported from Chicago.
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