I read an article recently in The New York Times about a not-for-profit organization called Final Exit Network (FEN), whose slogan is “Supporting the Human Right to a Death With Dignity.” Humans have a “right” to death with dignity? Tell that to the freight train bearing down on your disabled vehicle stuck on the tracks, with you inside unable to unclick the seatbelt.
Of course, the FEN’s specific focus is narrower: “to work toward obtaining the basic human right of competent adults to choose to end their lives on their own terms when they suffer from irreversible physical illness, intractable pain, or a constellation of chronic, progressive physical disabilities.”
To fulfill that mission, the FEN will tell you how to end your life. They have what they call the Exit Guide program — kind of the opposite of a life coach — where qualified individuals receive “relevant information, home visits if possible and a compassionate presence for individual and family.” First you must join FEN and submit an application, along with a doctor’s evaluation of your condition and prognosis — like a note from Mom telling the teacher it’s okay to send you home early. If you’re sick enough, and if you can attest that neither your family nor your primary caregiver will interfere, the FEN folks will assign you an Exit Guide.
From the guide, you’ll get “detailed information about the method [FEN] recommend[s], and the inexpensive equipment you will need to obtain.” Because in many places it’s a crime to help someone die, FEN never supplies equipment, but the guide “will provide you with information on all alternatives for care at the end of life, including all legal methods of self-deliverance that will produce a peaceful, quick, certain and painless death.”
And what do they often recommend? Asphyxiation by inhalation of helium.
You get a tank of helium, the same stuff they use at the party store to make festive floating balloons. You attach vinyl tubing to the tank, and run the open end into a large plastic baking or turkey brining bag. Then you securely tape the bag around your neck, and turn on the gas.
I can’t decide whether or not this is right or wrong, necessary or not. Instinctively it seems abhorrent; unthinkable. But then, I’m not living in the constant hell of pain that the people who seek out FEN’s services apparently seem to be enduring.
But I’m uneasy with the associations the helium exit brings to mind. I’ve seen people at parties inhale a lungful of helium, which allows them to talk for a few seconds in high-pitched, squeaky cartoon voices. It’s pretty funny to see a burly guy transformed into Tweety Bird at a party. But is it dignified to die that way? I guess if you’re in the bag making your exit, you’re not talking much.
And the bag itself, used to bake a roast, or to brine a turkey, is usually such a happy thing. You put something really good into it and it comes out better. When you’re done using that bag for its intended purpose, you’re warm, well-fed, and very happy. Even the vinyl tubing is a party accessory — it’s just like the tubing that attaches the plastic spigot to the beer keg at our summer parties.
Thank God I’m not in a position to consider using FEN’s services. I just wish they’d come up with a “method of self-deliverance” that doesn’t make me think of so many silly, happy things. Death with dignity? Maybe. But please, not death with Daffy Duck.