The “New Dr. Death”?

By Dave Andrusko

Dr. Lawrence Egbert

I missed the original story which appeared in the Baltimore Sun a few days ago (“Baltimore doctor helps the ill commit suicide”). I was clued in by a letter seething with indignation that appeared in the newspaper yesterday.

We’ve previously written about Dr. Lawrence Egbert in his role as “medical director” for the “Final Exit Network.” (See “The Shadowy World of Assisted Suicide”) Even a couple of years back, the now 83-year-old Egbert had been dubbed “The New Doctor Death” by Newsweek after being criminally charged in two states.

The Sun story, which ran May 20, has a few perfunctory “on the other hand” cautions. But in general Justin Fenton is in the tank for Egbert, who last month was cleared of all charges in the death of Jana Van Voorhis. (Other members of the group weren’t so fortunate. And Egbert is also being charged in Georgia in another case.)

From Fenton’s story and from the letter to the editor, the thrust of why even many “right to die” partisans back away from the Final Exit Network is clear. Jana Van Voorhis was obviously mentally ill but that did not stop two regional “exit guides” from going to Phoenix in 2007 where she re-affirmed her desire to “hasten her death.” According to the story

“Final Exit’s preferred method involves piping helium into an oxygen-eliminating hood placed over the individual’s head. Largely for legal reasons, however, network members do not provide the materials and are hands-off in the actual suicide.

Instead, Van Voorhis’ guides arranged pillows. They advised her to activate a minimal amount of helium from a tank, purchased at a party store, so the hood would not fly off. About eight minutes after Van Voorhis eased on the tank, she fell asleep. She began breathing irregularly. Four minutes later, she was dead.

[The President of the Final Exit Network, Jerry Dincin, said the helium method is “the kindest, quickest” way to die. “This is just another civil right that we have to fight for.”]

Egbert “says he has helped direct the deaths of nearly 300 people across the country,” Fenton writes. “Egbert said he has been personally present for nearly 100 deaths, including a handful in Baltimore.”

Beyond seeing assisted suicide as a “civil right,” perhaps the best illustration of Egbert’s attitude was his response to Jana Van Voorhis’ brother who said that while the “jury’s out” [on assisted suicide], “I think that universally it would be accepted that you don’t do this with mentally ill individuals.” 

Egbert told Fenton that’s not his role to determine whether it was a rational request.

“We’re saying it’s rational given the givens she’s suffering with,” he told Fenton. “We assume a person is doing something that makes sense to them.”

You can read Fenton’s full story here.

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