Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Assisted-Suicide Entrepreneurship in El Cajon

The LA Times reports on the growing federal investigation into the business activities of 91-year-old Sharlotte Hydorn. From her ranch-style home in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, Hydorn runs a unique sort of mail-order business: inside the butterfly-decorated boxes she sends are a set of plastic bags and metal tubing that, when connected to a helium tank, allow the user to asphyxiate him- or herself in minutes.

We realize this is more ghoulish than the things we usually write about, but Ms. Hydorn's story is intriguing. In December, she sold one of her "kits" to a 29-year-old man in Eugene, OR, whose subsequent suicide triggered a wave of publicity. While her orders swelled to over 100 per month, scrutiny from law enforcement agencies and politicians grew as well, and last week her home was raided by the FBI. Dozens of kits were seized, and Hydorn is now being investigated for everything from mail and wire fraud to violations of laws concerning adulterated or mishandled medical devices. Yet behind all of this is a much more troubling and difficult question: do people have the right to end their own lives, and if so, do they have the right to purchase a product that enables them to do so in a relatively peaceful and painless way?

Hydorn, for her part, is unapologetic about what she does. After watching her husband succumb to a long struggle with colon cancer in a hospital bed, she regretted not honoring his wish to die at home. She claims to regularly receive letters of gratitude from the family members of customers. Her critics, however, complain that she dispenses the product without knowing anything about her customers. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association for Suicidology, says, "What if this was a young person masquerading as an adult? What if this was a person with a totally treatable psychological condition who was not otherwise given the opportunity to get treatment?" And the brother of the Oregon man claims that the packaging hides the deadly nature of her device, and that its instructions tell users how to buy helium without arousing suspicion.

Yet these complaints still don't get at the basic question of whether people have the right to take their own lives. While we obviously view it as a last resort, and would want someone considering suicide to explore every other alternative, we still believe that people should be free to pursue courses of action that we don't approve of. And we'll be the first to admit that we don't understand what it would be like to live with terminal disease or severe mental illness. Hydorn's business troubles us, but even we have to admit it would violate a person's right to do as they wish with their body to prohibit them from buying her kit. Just as we'd have to admit that those kits probably bring a merciful end to the suffering of many people.


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