PBS, November 13, 10:30 p.m.
In November, PBS’s documentary series Frontline examined the murky legalities of assisted suicide. The entire episode is gripping: We watch an elderly woman with cancer who has decided to end her life go through the process with an organization called Compassion & Choices. We hear from people who were charged with crimes for helping loved ones commit suicide (or even just knowing about it beforehand). But the most compelling moment doesn’t involve anyone who is actually terminally ill.
Much of “The Suicide Plan” focuses on the Final Exit Network, whose leadership believes that everyone, not just those who are already dying, should be able to choose when to end his or her life. The group’s preferred method is helium, the kind you buy in tanks at party-goods stores. Final Exit Network volunteer “guides” will visit the home of the dearly departing, show them how to administer the helium, and then clean up the scene, preferably without leaving any sign of their involvement. But when two families learned separately that their loved ones’ allegedly natural deaths—a man in Georgia and a woman in Arizona—were suicides carried out with network guides present, a multistate investigation ensued.
In February 2009, as part of the investigation, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent posed as a man with pancreatic cancer who was ready to shuffle off his mortal coil. Final Exit then-president Ted Goodwin came to the man’s home and, as you can see in video of the sting that aired on Frontline, told him what to expect. “You’re going to have that hood on, and you’re going to be looking at me, probably. And you’re going to be breathing. It feels and smells just like air.” The two then headed to the man’s bedroom to make use of the helium tanks. After the agent lied down on the bed, he asked Goodwin to make sure that his hands don’t rip off the hood once the process starts. Other Final Exit Network guides acknowledged holding an individual’s hands at the time of death, purportedly to give them a final human touch. But here, Goodwin was promising to physically help the suicide. As soon as Goodwin touched the agent, he was arrested. In a later interview, he explained, “I think that there is a sacred moral issue here, OK, to protect them from a botched suicide.” (Goodwin was eventually acquitted.)
What is remarkable about the video is just how casual, how mundane, the process seems. Even though I happen to agree that in some cases people should have the right to choose to end their suffering, Goodwin gave me the willies. Shouldn’t death with dignity also involve a little more ceremony or solemnity or something that feels more special than a discussion about a root canal? (The method of death doesn’t help, either—as a district attorney told Frontline, “If you want to talk about death with dignity, I don’t think that it’s going to involve helium tanks that are purchased from Party City. It’s creepy. It’s disturbing.”) The scene was troubling, thought-provoking, and will stay with me for some time.