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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Ill Woman Challenges Assisted Suicide Law

ATLANTA (CN) - A woman with Huntington's disease and two members of the Final Exit Network challenged the constitutionality of Georgia's in "Offering to Assist in Suicide Statute" in Federal Court. Pointing out that neither suicide nor attempted suicide are illegal in Georgia, they call the law an overbroad and vague "viewpoint-based restriction on speech" that is not narrowly tailored to achieve government interest.

The Georgia Offering to Assist Suicide Statute (O.C.G.A. 16-5-5) states: "Any person who publicly advertises, offers or holds himself or herself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years."

Plaintiff Susan Caldwell, who suffers from Huntington's disease, which is hereditary, sued Gov. Sonny Perdue and Attorney General Thurbert Baker. Her co-plaintiffs, Fran Schindler and Jim Chastain, are "senior exit guides" with the Final Exit Network, a national volunteer organization that "advocates for and raises awareness of the basic right for a person to end his or her life when suffering from fatal or irreversible illness or intractable pain that has become more than they can bear."

They add that exit guides "do not buy any materials, encourage any individual to end his or her life, initiate the death procedure or physically assist in any way in the death procedure."

The plaintiffs say the Georgia law is not "the least restrictive or narrowly tailored means to achieve government interest" and is "overbroad and vague, and therefore unconstitutional," under the state and federal constitutions.

The vague law does not clearly state whether an "overt act" includes the furtherance of advertising or an offering to assist in suicide or the furtherance of the "involvement, intervention or participation" in the act of suicide, the complaint states. The plaintiffs add that the law restricts their First Amendment right of free speech about suicide, which is not illegal in Georgia.

Caldwell's mother, grandmother and uncle also suffered from Huntington's disease. Huntington's is a progressive neurological disease that leads to cognitive impairment and dementia, and partial paralysis with involuntary writhing, known as chorea.

Caldwell says her mother was so fearful that her children would develop the hereditary disease that she killed her son and tried to kill her too. Her mother died in 2001, and plaintiffs Caldwell began suffering from the symptoms of the disease in 2002, "including severe depression, neurological problems, and cognitive disorders that prevented her from working."

Caldwell, who has become a member of the Final Exit Network, has consulted with it about its services. She unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide alone in 2008 using a helium tank and hood.

The plaintiffs seek clarification of their rights for fear of prosecution.

Four Final Exit Network volunteers were arrested and charged with violating the statute in 2009.

The volunteers were accused of assisting in the suicide of John D. Celmer, including advertising their services and helping him commit suicide by inhaling helium, according to the complaint.

Since the arrest, indictment and prosecution of the volunteers, Schindler and Chastain, who are not Georgia residents, say they have stopped "disseminating and receiving constitutionally protected information and ideas in Georgia."

Caldwell says she "desires to immediately retain FEN and Ms. Schindler to provide her with information, demonstrations and counseling regarding assisted suicide. Once Ms. Caldwell decides that her irreversible, fatal disease has become more than she can bear, Ms. Caldwell would like Ms. Schindler to demonstrate end-of-life methods for her and compassionately hold her hand during her final hours. Because Ms. Schindler and Mr. Chastain are refraining from such expression out of a credible fear of prosecution under O.C.G.A. 16-5-5, Ms. Caldwell's reciprocal First Amendment right to receive such information has been infringed."

The plaintiffs seek a preliminary and permanent injunction. They are represented by Cynthia L. Counts with The Counts Law Group.

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