In 2010, four members of the assisted suicide advocacy group the Final Exit Network (FEN) were indicted in the state of Georgia for helping 58-year-old John Celmer kill himself two years after he had been diagnosed with cancer, though at the time his cancer was in remission.
Celmer died by asphyxiating on helium gas on June 19, 2008. The defendants say that two of them were present for support when Celmer committed suicide but did not help him do it. They later disposed of the helium tanks and “exit hood.” They were charged with violating the state’s assisted-suicide law, racketeering and tampering with evidence.
Late last year, in the state’s highest court, the defendants presented their case challenging the constitutionality of the assisted suicide law they were charged with violating, claiming that it violates the right to free speech. They also say that it does not really prohibit those who assist others committing suicide and that it is irrational for the law to allow someone to assist in a suicide but not to publicly advertise or offer that help.
The law, which was created in 1994 in response to Jack Kevorkian, who was making media headlines at the time for offering assisted suicide services out of the back of his van, prohibited advertising assisted suicides but didn’t fully ban them.
The statute didn’t prohibit assisted suicide in Georgia, where there is no law against the practice, the court said in today’s 7-0 ruling. The law only prohibits assisted suicides when there is a public advertisements, but not all instances where people are helped in killing themselves.
“The state has failed to provide any explanation or evidence as to why a public advertisement or offer to assist in an otherwise legal activity is sufficiently problematic to justify an intrusion on protected speech,” the court said, adding that the state legislature could have outlawed assisted suicide or all offers to help commit it. “The state here did neither.”
Thirty-nine states have enacted laws that criminalize assisted suicide, while Oregon and Washington has passed laws legalizing it.
Wesley J. Smith, a pro-life attorney and bioethicist who closely follows assisted suicide and euthanasia, blamed the state for not sufficiently banning the practice.
“This is the consequence of legislators writing laws based on headlines. Reacting to Jack Kevorkian’s assisted suicide of the 1990s, the Georgia Legislature passed a law — not banning assisted suicide — but, in essence, banning advertising assisted-suicide services,” he said. “The Georgia court noted that the state could have just declared assisted suicide against the criminal law, as most other states have done. Had it done so, I have no doubt the law would have been upheld as constitutional — like laws outlawing the practice have been in Florida, Alaska, California, and unanimously in the Supreme Court of the United States.”
“Georgia’s legislature had better remedy this fast or Georgia could become known as the Assisted Suicide State — all comers welcome — because as of now, anyone would seem to be able to assist any suicide, in any manner, for any reason in Georgia, and for compensation. That’s the consequence of incompetence in legislating,” he added.
The case is Final Exit Network Inc. v. State of Georgia, S11A1960, Supreme Court of Georgia (Atlanta).