While lots of grandmas are knitting tea cozies, 91-year-old Sharlotte Hydorn is stitching together suicide kits for her mail-order business. Hydorn’s kits consist of tubing and a plastic “helium hood” that can cause suffocation once linked to a tank of gas supplied by the user. Hydorn says her “exit kits” are intended to help terminally ill people end their lives with dignity in their own homes. A suicide bag, also known as an exit bag, is a device consisting of a large plastic bag with a drawcord used to commit suicide. It is usually used in conjunction with an inert gas like helium or nitrogen, which prevents the panic, sense of suffocation and struggling during unconsciousness (the hypercapnic alarm response) usually caused by the deprivation of oxygen in the presence of carbon dioxide. This method also makes the direct cause of death difficult to trace if the bag and gas canister are removed before the death is reported. Right-to-die groups recommend this form of suicide as certain, fast, and painless. The suicide bag was first mentioned in Derek Humphry’s book Final Exit in 1992 and was described as a large plastic bag with an adjustable velcro strip around the neck area.
Different models of the “Exit Bag” were described in Hemlock publications, and the use of helium was specified. Philip Nitschke has stated that nitrogen has a lower risk of an adverse reaction by the body, but did not specify with regard to what other gas. Nitrogen has been advocated as a replacement for helium not because of reactions to helium, but because due to a “temporary restriction on the availability of disposable Helium in Australia (and New Zealand), helium has been difficult to procure.”Dr. Richard MacDonald, the medical director of the Hemlock Society, advised in 2003 that reduced barbiturate availability led to promotion of suicide bags. The Human Life Review reported in 2003 that Caring Friends, a Hemlock Society program, shifted to promoting them as a result and published advertisements stating that “how-to guides such as Final Exit and Departing Drugs also recommend the use of plastic bags for self-deliverance.” Australian doctor Philip Nitschke, a euthanasia advocate, promotes suicide bags with films, such as “Doing it with Betty – in which an elderly woman describes how to make a plastic ‘exit’ bag”, and publishes materials such as workshop handbooks.
Nitschke also promotes other related methods such as masks and tents. The Australian-based euthanasia group EXIT, also known as EXIT International ( read below ), attempted to market a manufactured version of the bag in Australia in 2002. Up until that time, “exit bags” were available on the Internet from Canadian right-to-die advocates (The Right to Die Society of Canada) to Australians. Canadians stopped shipping them when the Australian government indicated in 2001 that it planned to review their importation. The bags are known as “Aussie Bags”. In 2007, Canadian press reports indicated that the combination of a bag and inert gas was becoming the most popular method of suicide, but had not led to an increase in suicides. Two years later, four members of the Final Exit Network were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia and charged with assisted suicide in the death of a man who had had disfiguring cancer surgery. Investigators said the organization may have been involved in as many as 200 other deaths around the country.
Members of the Network are instructed to buy two new helium tanks and a hood, known as an “exit bag” (suicide bag). Suicides using this method are well documented in the literature. In the study Asphyxial suicide with helium and a plastic bag, the authors described a case involving a 60-year-old woman with a diagnosis of adenoid cystic carcinoma. The woman died in September 2000, in South Carolina with help of a suicide bag and helium. Cases using suicide bags and gases other than noble gases are recorded, such as a propane-butane mixture, and methane (natural gas). A 2010 study in the Journal of Medical Ethics found that helium in a bag or hood caused death in a quick and painless manner, and could play a role in “demedicalising assisted suicide”. A 2011 study found that in recent years information about suicide with helium and a bag has spread rapidly on the Internet, in print, and on video. Turning back, the Gladd Group of El Cajon, California, owned and run by the 91-year-old Sharlotte Hydorn, ( see the video ) was raided by the FBI and her operation ceased. In July 2011, this raid caused Oregon to be the first state to pass legislation prohibiting the sale of kits containing suicide bags or hoods.
Controversial euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitschke, who has been dubbed Dr Death, is bringing the first of his suicide workshops across the UK to a seaside retirement town. Dr Nitschke, an Australian, will demonstrate his DIY suicide kit which includes an “exit bag”, drugs from Mexico and “Peaceful Pills” at the meeting in Bournemouth, Dorset. It is the second time Dr Nitschke has tried to host the workshops in Bournemouth because of its large number of elderly people.
Dr Nitschke, who founded the “right-to-die” organisation Exit International, said: “There needs to be a reshaping of people’s education and beliefs around such a subject.”It seems we demand humans to live with indignity, pain and anguish whereas we are kinder to our pets when their suffering becomes too much. It simply is not logical or mature. Trouble is, we have had too many centuries of religious clap-trap.” Dr Nitschke, from Darwin, successfully campaigned to have a legal euthanasia law passed in Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1990s and helped four terminally ill people end their lives.
The law in the Northern Territory was overturned after nine months in March 1997 by the Australian Parliament. In the UK, assisted suicide is illegal with a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison. Under the Coroners and Justice Bill, websites that encourage or help people to commit suicide could also be outlawed. But in March former health secretary Patricia Hewitt tabled an amendment to the proposed legislation to allow people to take family members abroad for assisted suicide without prosecution.