Assisted Suicide

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Richard Scheinwald / AP

Dr. Jack Kevorkian & his homemade suicide machine.

Mention the term "euthanasia," and the first thing most people think of is the epic assisted suicide battle of the 1990s starring Jack "Doctor Death" Kevorkian. But the issue of whether human beings — and more pointedly, doctors — have the right to help others die has been in the public discourse since before the birth of Christ. The Hippocratic Oath, which scholars estimate was written in the fourth century B.C., includes the unambiguous statement: I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan. (The oath, which most modern doctors do not take, also includes a promise not to perform abortions.) (See the Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs of 2008)

The centuries-old debate over a person's right to die, usually in cases of painful terminal illness, is currently grabbing headlines with the arrest of four members of a group called the Final Exit Network. Authorities say the four helped an Atlanta man commit suicide last June, which, if proven, would be a violation of Georgia state law.

The idea that it should be illegal to help someone commit suicide is most often ascribed to the Biblical Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Despite this, several Judeo-Christian societies have condoned assisted suicide in recent years. Australia legalized it in 1995, only to rescind the law two years later. The Netherlands and Switzerland have decriminalized the practice, paving the way for a British man named Craig Ewert to travel to Zurich in December 2008 intent on taking his life. Ewert's journey and death were broadcast on British television. Although British law makes it illegal to help someone commit suicide, authorities have opted not to prosecute Ewert's wife and others who have helped loved ones travel abroad for the express purpose of committing suicide.

In the case of Final Exit, according to authorities — and an undercover agent who infiltrated the group — the four arrestees instructed a 58-year-old man how to kill himself using a plastic hood filled with helium. The defendants face at least up to five years in prison if convicted. It appears the man who died was not terminally ill; according to the Associated Press, his doctor told authorities that although he suffered from cancer that left his face disfigured, he was cancer-free at the time of his suicide.

The lack of imminent death fueled much of the debate in the 2005 case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a vegetative state whose feeding tube was removed — causing eventual death — after a protracted legal and political battle. Schiavo's husband Michael said Terri would not have wanted to be kept alive, while her parents had argued her mental capacity could have improved with therapy. Acorss the Atlantic, Eluana Englaro, an Italian woman in a similar non-responsive state, died in February 2009 under circumstances that mirrored the Schiavo case. While "right-to-die" cases are different than "assisted suicide" cases — right-to-die usually refers to the removal of feeding tubes or ventilators keeping unconscious or vegetative patients alive, as opposed to people actively deciding to end their lives — the Schiavo case and others preceding it have fueled the debate over whether humans should have a right to control when they die.

After ruling in 1997 that Americans do not have a Constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide, the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2006 that such cases should be up to the states. Oregon has had a "Death With Dignity" law on the books since 1997 that allows terminally ill patients to commit suicide with lethal doses of prescribed medication. In 2007, some 46 people committed suicide in Oregon under the law. Last November Washington voters passed a similar provision that allows patients with six or fewer months to live to self-administer lethal doses of medication. Washington's former governor, Parkinson's sufferer Booth Gardner, stumped for the law, while opponents included Martin Sheen, who starred in television commercials urging voters to shoot down the initiative.

Kevorkian, who devised a "suicide machine" to administer lethal doses of medication, spent seven years in prison for his efforts, emerging in 2007 at the age of 79. He claimed to have helped some 130 people commit suicide, but was locked up over one particular case of a 52-year-old man with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) who Kevorkian helped commit suicide. Kevorkian videotaped the death and allowed it to be broadcast on 60 Minutes in a brazen violation of Michigan law.

The Final Exit arrestees appear, like Kevorkian, to be prepared and planning for a fight. The group has a web site explaining its cause and its leader Jerry Dincin has told TIME he considers Final Exit members "angels of mercy."