Arrests thrust right-to-die into spotlight, again

BALTIMORE—Voters in Washington State last fall, and in Oregon eight years ago, approved by strong majorities ballot propositions legalizing physician assisted suicide for terminally ill patients suffering unbearable pain. Known as a movement for “death with dignity,” it has spread nationwide.

But the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has launched a crackdown arresting leaders of Final Exit Network, a non-profit organization that offers counseling, training and support to the terminally ill.

Taken into custody Feb. 25 in Georgia were Final Exit members Thomas E. Goodwin, a scientist at Georgia State University, and Claire Blehr.

Here in Baltimore, GBI and Baltimore police arrested Dr. Lawrence Egbert, 81, an anesthesiologist and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, 60. Egbert is the network’s medical director and Sheridan was described as its case coordinator.

All four defendants are charged with assisting FEN member John Celmer, 58, of Cummings, Ga., end his life last July. Neither Egbert nor Sheridan has ever been to Georgia.

Absurdly, the defendants have also been charged with violation of RICO, the “anti-racketeering” law.

Celmer’s mother, Betty Celmer, said the Final Exit defendants should not be prosecuted. Her son was suffering “very, very severe mouth and throat cancer…He was suffering terribly.”

FEN President Jerry Dincin said the defendants are innocent. Final Exit, he said “works within the law by providing counseling and training and support.” FEN does not “‘assist’ suicide in any way, nor do we encourage individuals to hasten their deaths.

“Members who avail themselves of the Exit Guide Program must be capable of performing every required function without assistance of any type. At any time during the process a member can change his or her mind,” Dincin said in a statement on their website.

The arrests have thrown into the national spotlight, once again, end-of-life issues. Previous cases involving Dr. Jack Kavorkian and Terri Schiavo have taken center stage in previous years. Polls during the Schiavo case showed most Americans favor the ability for terminally-ill patients to decide if and when to end their lives.

Caught up in the new focus are two well-known Baltimore peace and justice activists, Egbert and Sheridan. Supporters of the defendants were in the courtroom during a hearing Feb. 27 as the two men, shackled at the wrists and ankles and dressed in yellow prison coveralls entered. Defense attorney Michael Kaminow pleaded that they be released on bond to make arrangement for their families before traveling to Georgia. They had waived their right to contest extradition to Atlanta.

“These are not people who are running from justice. These are people who want justice,” he said, pointing out that Dr. Egbert is a volunteer physician with “Doctors Without Borders.”

Egbert also worked with the Baltimore chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and teaches a course in ethics at Johns Hopkins University. Sheridan is a widely respected activist in Citizens for Peace. He is the sole guardian of his 17 year old daughter.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke who attended the hearing, said she considers Sheridan a close and trusted friend. “The Nick I know would never do any harm to anyone,” she said.

The judge agreed to release them on bail. They are expected to travel to Georgia over the weekend to face trial.

Dr. Egbert’s wife, Ellen Barfield, leader of the Baltimore Chapter of Veterans for Peace was fighting back tears after the hearing. “There was no crime committed,” she told me. “I’m so sorry that Nick and Larry are bearing the hardship of being in jail. Larry has high blood pressure. I am worried for him.”

In all the commentary she has seen since the arrests, “I have not seen a single person who did not say that people have the right to end their life when the pain becomes unbearable,” she said.

Final Exit, based in Highland Park, Ill., claims 3,000 members across the country. Jim Baldridge, another Veterans for Peace activist, told the Baltimore Sun, Egbert is a “highly moral, ethical and humble person.”

GBI infiltrated Final Exit with an agent posing as terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. GBI agents have conducted raids on 14 sites in nine states including Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Montana in their investigation of the network.