Georgia Should Fix Anti Assisted Suicide Statute in Wake of Final Exit Network Defendants’ Appeal

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on November 3, 2011

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

You may recall the indictment of Ted Goodwin and other Final Exit Network activists, accused of assisting the suicide of a man in remission from cancer who was distraught at his disfiguring surgery. The defendants challenged the indictment, denied by the Georgia Court of Appeals. That challenge is now to be decided by the state’s supreme court.

The defendants appear to be making two primary claims. One is a free speech argument, and the other is a claim that the conduct with which they are charged, even if true, does not violate the statute. From the Atlanta Constitution story:

A taste of the defendants’ argument:

But the statute does not “generally prohibit assistance in suicide,” the lawyers argue in briefs. “Anyone in Georgia may assist others in suicide so long as he does not make a public statement about it first.” “The ‘crime’ of section 16-5-5(b) is made criminal only because of the speech.”

The trial court ruled that “the State has a compelling interest to protect people contemplating suicide.” “While that statement may be true in the abstract, the statute at issue is solely directed to preventing the advertising, offering, or holding out by one that she will assist another in a suicide,” the lawyers argue.

“The Georgia statute does nothing to inhibit assistance in a suicide by one’s friends, family, neighbors, doctors, nurses, clergy, or even by one’s sworn enemies or prospective heirs. The statute directs its fire only at anyone who first ‘publicly’ advertises, offers or holds out a solicitation of his or her availability to assist in a suicide.” Georgia law does not prohibit assisted suicide and therefore there’s no compelling interest in preventing assisted suicide

The Georgia statute is odd. Apparently, the state outlawed assisted suicide in reaction to the Jack Kevorkian rampage. (This is a pet peeve of mine, legislating based on the headline of the moment. It leads often to badly conceived and/or worded statutes, as it seems to have here.) Here is what the Georgia law proscribes. From Title 16, Section 16-5-5, (my emphasis):

(a) As used in this Code section, the term:

(1) ‘Intentionally and actively assisting suicide’ means direct and physical involvement, intervention, or participation in the act of suicide which is carried out free of any threat, force, duress, or deception and with understanding of the consequences of such conduct.

(2) ‘Suicide’ means the intentional and willful termination of one´s own life.

(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

Good grief. The state accurately defined assisted suicide. It should have just outlawed that without regard to publicity.

The Final Exit Network holds itself out publicly as “counseling” those who want to commit suicide, claiming it does not participate. I don’t believe that for a second, and as I recall, the undercover law enforcment agent made some very damning assertions about the actual practices of FEN that would belie the group’s ”who us?” sophistry. Indeed, FEN is all about the suicide. Moreover, two FEN “counselors” pled guilty to felonies involving the suicide of a mentally ill Phoenix woman, so there is more than ample reason to suspect they do more than just “counsel.”

But the law is what the law is. I don’t blame the Georgia Supreme Court for taking a look. Georgia should have gotten it right the first time. Now, regardless of how the Supremes rule, the Georgia Legislature should clean this statute up and just outlaw all assisted suicides without regard to “publicly” stating anything.

By the way, to obtain a quick summary of the laws of all fifty states regarding assisted suicide, check out the Patient Rights Council’s splended summary, “Assisted Suicide Laws in the United States.” In fact, any time you want to research assisted suicide, euthanasia, futile care, food and fluids cases, the Patient Rights Councl’s Web site is the place to start.

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