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Minnesota gains fame in the wrong way in case against Final Exit Network

Final Exit Network, the nation's largest organization for helping people die on their own terms, faces a $30,000 fine over Doreen Dunn's suicide.

Final Exit Network, the nation's largest organization for helping people die on their own terms, faces a $30,000 fine over Doreen Dunn's suicide.

In 2008, posing as a terminal cancer patient in great pain, an investigator with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation called the national right-to-die organization Final Exit Network for help ending his own life. The agent supplied fake medical records and lured volunteer “exit guides” into a sting.

Fast forward to February 25, 2009, which Final Exit supporters will know forever as “Bust Day.” The Georgia cops sprung the trap. They served search warrants, seizing computers and countless thousands of documents listing the personal information of people who had sought out Final Exit since the group’s founding in 2004. Volunteers for the organization, mostly doctors and nurses, were arrested all over the country.

The Georgia police sent invitations to other law enforcement agencies across the United States, wherever someone had contacted Final Exit for services, in hopes of stirring a chain of prosecutions across the country.

About a dozen local agencies opened their own investigations, but closed the cases without bringing charges. The only prosecutor in all of America to answer the call was Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

Backstrom had discovered, in light of the Georgia sting, that Doreen Dunn of Apple Valley had not died of natural causes in 2007 as originally thought. Doreen, a 57-year-old woman who suffered from chronic pain, had actually sought help from Final Exit. Two “exit guides” gave her advice on how to end her own life, then stayed with her while she carried through with it.

It was news to Doreen’s husband, Mark Dunn.

“When this organization acted as they did, they raised themselves above the law,” Mark said in court, according to the Associated Press. “By their deception they have shown a calculated, cruel disregard. Then, with an arrogance that is breathtaking, they posture themselves as compassionate, while at the same time they argue technicalities of law to obscure and avoid their responsibility.”

Final Exit Network was fined $30,000 on Monday for assisting Dunn. It will be allowed to resume its work just as soon as the fine is paid. Attorney Robert Rivas asserts the national right-to-die organization will dig its heels in and appeal the conviction on grounds of freedom of speech.

Exit guides don’t provide equipment for clients to commit suicide, and they won’t lend a hand to help in the process, Rivas says. When terminally ill or suffering people call Final Exit for help, volunteers tell them how to prepare and offer to keep them company in their final moments.

The attorney adds that Final Exit had already changed its policies to notify family members prior to its recent conviction in Minnesota.

Yet in the case of Doreen Dunn, Final Exit president Janis Landis is sticking to her conviction that the organization's duty was to represent Doreen's wish to die, and not family members' wishes that she should live. Some people who request exit guides never want their loved ones to discover that they died by suicide for fear of stigmatizing surviving family, because of religious taboos or simply because they consider death to be uniquely private. 

Landis, who attended college in the 1960s, says the broad social awareness of the time led to her lifelong devotion to the dignity in death movement. While she saw right-to-die as a natural extension of the feminist fight for women to gain control of their reproductive rights, Landis did not throw her full support behind Final Exit Network until 2009, when she first heard about the Georgia sting. 

"It was clear that the GBI didn't like what the Final Exit Network did and whether or not they had a legitimate case, they would seize the records, seize the funds, and put the organization out of business," Landis says. "I found this an extremely frightening abuse of the government's ability." 

Georgia courts eventually found the prosecution of Final Exit Network unconstitutional. Landis believes that the organization will be exonerated in Minnesota as well. 

"This gag of free speech means that if it’s upheld, every loving conversation in a family in which someone is suffering and someone else says to them, for example, 'Well did you know that voluntary stopping eating and drinking is an option, did you know you could stop taking your medication, did you know that you could ask for this or ask for that?' ... All these people will wind up being prosecuted because free speech between adults, getting information, has been found uniquely in the state of Minnesota to not be protected by the First Amendment," she says.