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How-to suicide video akin to ‘snuff film,’ bioethicist says

WASHINGTON (BP)–A how-to suicide video telecast in Oregon is basically no different than a “snuff film,” a Southern Baptist bioethicist said.

The video, “Final Exit,” was shown recently on a Eugene, Ore., public-access cable television station. Oregon is the only state to legalize assisted suicide. In the video, leading euthanasia advocate Derek Humphry explains methods of committing suicide for the terminally ill, according to pro-life sources.

The barrier-breaking telecast “is not only irresponsible, but it is an abuse of the medium of television,” said Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“Depicting a suicide in the relatively sterile context of a television program — where viewers are separated from the event through a two-dimensional medium and where the stage can be set by those producing the show — comes nowhere near showing the hopelessness felt by those who take their own lives. Neither does it communicate effectively the irreversibility of suicide,” Mitchell said.

“In my view, there’s nothing fundamentally that separates this video from the obscenity of so-called ‘snuff films,'” he said.

“Snuff films” are violent, sometimes sexually explicit, videos that typically end with a subject being killed.

In the video, Humphry, author of the book “Final Exit” and co-founder of the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society, names lethal drugs and explains how to mix them in applesauce in order to commit suicide, according to a Pro-life Infonet report based on an Associated Press article. He also demonstrates how to use a plastic bag to bring death by suffocation, the International Anti-euthanasia Task Force reported.

“The only history being made here is that irresponsible broadcasting is being taken to new lows,” said Rita Marker, IAETF’s executive director, in a news release.

The suicide rate for Oregon children age 10 to 17 has increased more than 500 percent during the last 30 years, Marker said. In 1998, an Oregon study found 20 percent of the state’s high school students had seriously considered suicide and 9 percent had attempted it, she said. “Now all kids have to do is watch TV, and tragically they can learn how to finish the job,” Marker said.

David Stevens, executive director of the 15,000-member Christian Medical and Dental Society, said the telecast “exposed the irresponsible and dangerous mentality of the so-called ‘Death With Dignity’ movement to Oregon and the world. Derek Humphry’s media stunt teaches viewers to eliminate themselves, not their pain. It’s time we trashed this warped philosophy before it further corrodes our nation’s long-standing tradition of care.

“As medical professionals, we recognize suicide as a desperate cry for help,” Stevens said in a written release. “We answer that cry with pain management, proper medical treatment and counseling.”

Even Barbara Coombs Lee, an advocate of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, criticized the video, which was telecast Feb. 2. It “takes assisted dying out of the context of medical care and puts it in the context of hardware store,” Lee said, according to Pro-life Infonet’s report.

In the video, Humphry explains how he mixed fatal drugs in coffee to help his first wife, Jean, who had cancer, to commit suicide, according to Pro-life Infonet. His second wife, Ann, however, alleged before her death by suicide that Humphry smothered Jean after the drugs failed to work. In her suicide note, Ann said Humphry, who left her when she was diagnosed with cancer, drove her to commit suicide, according to Deadly Compassion, a book by Marker.

“Assisted suicide, far from being based on personal freedom, is extraordinarily coercive,” said Mitchell, an assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area. “When patients feel that their only option is to end their own lives, then their choice is really not a free choice.”

Oregon’s voters first approved the Death With Dignity Act in a 1994 initiative, but legal challenges blocked its enforcement for three years. The voters reaffirmed the law by a wider margin in 1997. Fifteen people died by assisted suicide in 1998, the state’s first full year after the law went into effect.

In October, the U.S. House of Representatives took aim at Oregon’s action and a resultant federal ruling, easily passing legislation intended to block the use of federally regulated drugs for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia and at the same time promote pain management in the terminally ill. The Senate has not acted on the bill.

The bill supports the use of federally controlled substances for the alleviation of pain, even if the risk of death increases in the process, but it clarifies federally controlled drugs may not be used intentionally to assist in a suicide. The measure says the U.S. attorney general may not make exceptions in the case of a state that permits assisted suicide or euthanasia. It also establishes a program at the Department of Health and Human Services for research into pain management.

The Pain Relief Promotion Act was proposed as a result of a 1998 ruling by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno enabling federally regulated drugs to be used in Oregon to help people commit suicide. She ruled the Controlled Substances Act does not authorize the federal government to take action against doctors who prescribe medication for terminally ill people who desire to take their lives under Oregon’s law.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously states could prohibit assisted suicide, but its action did not prevent states from legalizing the practice. In the same year, President Clinton signed into law legislation banning federal funding of assisted suicide.

At its 1996 meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution condemning assisted suicide.