EL CAJON, Calif. — A state senator from Oregon—which in 1994 became the first state in the nation to approve assisted suicide—is preparing legislation to block the sale of suicide kits following the December death of a 29-year-old Eugene resident.
Nick Klonoski, the son of a college professor and a judge, took his own life just before Christmas after suffering chronic, but non-life threatening health problems. His family said his health had improved in the months before his death, but that he had a setback after a bad bout with the flu.
Klonsoki used what is known as a mail-order "helium hood kit," which he purchased from The Gladd Group through a La Mesa, Calif. mailbox suite. The owner of the company is 91-year-old Lucy Reynolds (not her real name), who is assisted by her son. The kits include a plastic hood and tubing, which is tied over the head after attaching the contraption to a helium tank. The kits, which do not include the tank, sell for $60. Police also found a copy of the book, "Final Exit," basically a how-to-manual written by euthanasia proponent Derek Humphry.
Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said his organization was so concerned about the suicide kits, it sent out an email to its supporters with a video news cast about the story.
"We think it's a really sad development," said Rosales, whose organization has successfully lobbied against two different attempts to legalize assisted suicide in California over the past six years.
Democrat Sen. Floyd Prozanski, of Eugene, told that city's Register-Guard that he was in the process of drafting legislation to block the sale of helium hood kits. The law would target kits sold either in or out of state.
"When you think about what is being marketed and to whom and in what state of mind, we need to make every possible effort to protect people's lives," the senator told Register-Guard reporter Randi Bjornstad.
Humphry, who founded the Hemlock Society, which lobbies for euthanasia, included a section in his "Final Exit" book on the helium hoods. Humphry, who is no longer affiliated with the Hemlock Society, now runs Euthanasia Research & Guidance Organization, which he also founded. His website includes information about The Gladd Group, including the address where they can be ordered.
"Supplying this equipment is not an ERGO project, but we have heard that they are reliable, with a fairly good turn-around time," Humphry's website said.
Humphry also promotes his book on the site as a way for people to get more information on the procedure, which he calls "self-deliverance."
"The illustrated information in the paperback or digital 'Final Exit' book must be studied closely for successful self-deliverance," an entry on the site said.
In addition to the basic information, the site includes a comments section where Humphry answers readers' questions on the suicide method.
"Helium is inflammable and not explosive," he responded to one post. "But unless a person follows the explicit, illustrated guidance in 'Final Exit' it might well be botched."
And in another, he responds to a question about gas flow regulators for the tank.
"Obviously gas flow regulators give guidance, but they are not really necessary provided the method is done 'by the book,'" he answered.
According to the site, Gladd only supplies the kits through mail order with cash, money order or check. No Internet or telephone sales are accepted.
Lucy Reynolds, who lives in the El Cajon home she bought in the 1970s with her late husband, said she began making and selling the bag kits about three years ago after poor health prompted a Canadian man to stop a similar business.
"He came to visit me here," she said.
She began marketing the kits through the company she founded, an acronym for Good Life and Dignified Death (GLADD).
Reynolds said she became involved with the euthanasia and assisted suicide movements after her husband's death from colon cancer. In an extended telephone interview she talked about how the cancer had emaciated her once-healthy husband and how wearing a stomach waste bag—which she had to clean and empty regularly—robbed both of them of their dignity.
"They tried to do the best for him that they could," she said of the medical professionals who treated her husband. "He should have died sooner. He should have been able to smell the flowers and still enjoy food."
She scoffed at media reports that she was making $100,000 a year on the devices. When she began the project she said she was making two devices a week. Up to several weeks ago, she was filling 10 orders a week.
Since publicity from the Oregon case hit the Internet in the past week, orders have increased to 10 a day, a pace she said she's not able to keep up with. Each kit, she said, takes her five hours to produce. Even as she was being interviewed by telephone, she opened an order from London that included extra cash to send the kit by express courier. In another instance one couple, still in good health, ordered his-and-her units just in case.
An exit guide
Reynolds believes so strongly in a person's right to choose the method and timing of their death that she received training in how to become an "exit aide," someone who stays with a patient as they end their own life. The aides, she said, always work in pairs and spend time getting acquainted with the patient.
"I'm just here to comfort people because I suffered, too, when my husband died," she said.
Reynolds said she has shown the patients the bag kit and they have sometimes role played before the patient uses the device. Because of the limited number of people willing to train to be exit aids, Reynolds said she has traveled across the country in that role.
"Nobody holds anybody down," the senior citizen said. "I've held people's hands."
In one instance she remembers using an air compressor to blow up a bag as a visual aid for one woman.
"She said, "I always wanted to be the Cat in the Hat,'" Reynolds recalled. "Even when they were dying they would have a sense of humor."
Rosales, the spokesman for the Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said he believes such action could be close to breaking state law prohibiting in the participation of a suicide.
"The law gets tricky and gray," he said. "I think its definitely skirting the law. I think anyone participating can be exerting influence on the person, especially someone who could be facing serious difficulties and challenges ahead. The opportunity for mischievousness is certainly there."
A matter of choice?
As a Unitarian, Reynolds said she believes everyone must be able to choose for themselves, and that the law should allow all people to die with dignity.
"These are just my feelings, I don't feel guilty," she said. "When we are born, we have a big celebration, when people get married we have a big party, but when we die it's all black clothes, sadness and weeping. This (dying with dignity), I believe, is a living memorial."
Rosales disagrees vehemently.
"They want to move it far beyond that type of procedure into something that is more creepy and morbid," he said, saying the ultimate goal is to allow suicide for society's most vulnerable: the disabled, mentally ill, and low-income citizens who cannot afford adequate health care.
"We wanted to bring greater awareness to it because it's indicative of where pro-assisted suicide groups want to move to."
He said Klonsoki's death proves that euthanasia movement's mantra to just serve the terminally ill, is merely an entrance point to wider uses.
"The evidence is clear that this isn't the case," he said. "They want to move the ball farther along than where they started.
"It all represents the wrong answer to very serious issues we have in society and that is caring for people who are seriously ill or living with a serious disability."
No weapon used
Reynolds said she was sorry about Klonsoki's death, but added that it was a course of action he had contemplated for quite some time since he purchased the euthanasia book more than a year before his death.
"Something was hurting him terrifically, either physically or emotionally," she said.
When asked if she feared the incident would be investigated, she said there was no crime.
"There was nobody there, there was no gun, there was no weapon, therefore it was legal," Reynolds said. "I don't see it as a weapon. Let (the people) decide if it's a weapon."
Rosales countered that the issue has nothing to do with weapons.
"Regardless of the method that someone is using to promote or encourage assisted suicide—whether it's a bag, whether it's a gun or use of a prescription drug—the result is all the same," he said, adding that the issue transcends pro-life views and that most disability advocacy groups are against the assisted suicide movement.
He said he supports the legislative attempt to ban the kits in Oregon and would welcome similar action in California.
Resources for suicide help