You’d be hard-pressed to find an exit guide who tosses around the term “suicide.” They use terms like “self-deliverance” or “death with dignity.” “A lot of people in the movement just find it terribly offensive and jump through hoops to keep from using the word,” said the group’s lawyer, Rivas.
Rivas isn’t one of those people. If he’s going to be taken seriously defending this group, he says, there’s no skirting around it. He channels his bluntness into all of his exit guide training sessions. Before an exit guide sits with a person as they die, they sit in a room with Rivas as he explains the “looming possibility” that they could very well be prosecuted.
Like in 2009, when four exit guides were jailed—then released after two days, when bail was made—and other members’ homes were searched amid a Georgia Bureau of Investigation national campaign to prosecute the network. The bureau seized “paperwork, records and computers,” from key members in the network, according to GBI. Investigators uncovered 523 names of people who reached out to Final Exit Network “for assistance with their suicide.”
“Nobody knows better than I do, sometimes courts make mistakes. Exit guides make mistakes,” Rivas said. “It’s a looming possibility out there for every exit guide, and I make them say to themselves in training sessions: ‘I understand this is possible, and I’m prepared to accept that possibility.’”
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The way exit guides see it, it’s a person’s natural-born right to ultimately decide when they should die—particularly if that person is suffering from illness or disability or pain. There is no big picture, Schindler said, there’s only what’s right: “[Clients] have the right to choose to end their life on their own. They have the right to choose how, where, where and—most importantly, with who.”
Final Exit Network members say they are selective about who they assign an exit guide. Each applicant must undergo a phone and in-home interview, and be cleared by the Medical Evaluation Committee, the in-house group of members who comprise the group’s medical evaluation board. If Schindler feels a client is a risk to the network, she said, or if the family is not cooperative, she refuses to take the case. “You have a relationship with them,” Schindler said. “You are friendly with them and with their family to a degree, but there is a boundary you cannot cross.”
Now and then, Schindler said, come the calls from a person suffering from mental illness, such as depression—someone looking for a quick way out. But those aren’t the kind of people Final Exit Network is meant to help, exit guides say. These are people who would never make it through the vetting process.
Except one woman did.
In 2007, Jana Van Voorhis, a 58-year-old woman from Phoenix, told Final Exit Network that she was dying of cancer. But Van Voorhis wasn’t dying at all. “She had no terminal illness,” says Jared Thomas, Van Voorhis’ brother-in-law, who found her body when he and his wife went to check on her at her home. “She was mentally ill. … She was a doctor-shopper.” Van Voorhis had asphyxiated herself, inhaling helium until she stopped breathing.