A less than glad end

Sharlotte Hydorn, an elderly lady in California, has pleaded guilty to selling helium hoods (“Gladd Bags”) worldwide, and finally been charged with something – tax evasion – after months of speculation over whether she was breaking any laws.

The Gladd bags (short for Glorious Life And Dignified Death) had been purchased by thousands of self-determined adults around the globe as a safety precaution against an undignified end where any of us could experience pain and suffering towards the end of life. They gave people hope and courage to face an unknown future.

Only a small percentage of people buying the bags actually used them. Over recent years, a plastic hood (such as the Gladd Bag, but easy enough to make at home) combined with helium bought from a party-balloon supplier, has become the most popular way of ending one’s own life completely painlessly. As suicide methods become defunct (gas ovens, sleeping tablets) or by various changes in the law, people seek newer methods – the suicide rate is not affected by the availability or non-availability of a specific means.

Hydorn provided an option for people who, for instance, could not manage to assemble a bag with some elastic on account of arthritis in the hands. But the method became so popular among people with good reasons to take matters into their own hands – people with unbearable and unrelievable suffering – that it was also chosen as a suicide method by those experiencing emotional trauma or despair. One or tow people used helium and a Gladd Bag rather than jumping off a bridge, slitting their wrists, or other violent and unpleasant means of death.

After one such case, the FBI raided Mrs Hydorn’s home and confiscated her sewing machine and computer. Passing on details of customer orders to police around the world, the FBI initiated ‘welfare checks’ on anyone they could find who had bought a bag from Mrs Hydorn.

Various books are available to explain the method or it is easily understood from newspaper reports. Final Exit, Beyond Final Exit, Peaceful Pill, and our own Five Last Acts II all give explain how to add a piece of elastic to a plastic bag(!) and fill it with helium in case it is not obvious. Seminars and workshops give people the option to experiment with making a hood in a safe and convivial environment. Exit has conducted workshops for years where people make their own hoods, and Exit International (no connection) gives the information in talks worldwide.

Exit stays very clearly within the law. We don’t advise anyone what they should do with their life or whether to end it or not – we simply discuss these things among sensible adults. The Scottish legal construct of novus actus interveniens recognises that people don’t rush out and kill themselves simply because they can. I could tell you that crossing the road when cars are coming will probably kill you. Fortunately you are not only unlikely to do that as a result, but if you have any sense you will choose a way that is more peaceful and less harmful to their people should you ever decide, on your own, that enough is enough.

Mrs Hydorn didn’t encourage suicides – but she did perhaps fill a peaceful gap in the market. Her tax affairs seem rather spurious, but expect new laws prohibiting anything that might be used to end your life in extremis. Sticking to high cliffs and other rather gruesome methods is considered ‘kinder’ by some pro-life activists. I’m not so glad about that.

Links:
Police contact buyers of helium hoods
Hoods on Wikipedia
BBC coverage
LA Times
New York Times story – sentencing

[Postscript 4 Dec]
Hydorn’s lawyer, Charles Goldberg, said she never deposited payments from her patrons, and that FBI agents found hundreds of uncashed checks and envelopes of cash in her home. “She was a committed person with strong beliefs that a person had a right to determine the quality of their life, particularly in the last days,” Goldberg said. Hydorn has said her interest in helping the terminally ill stemmed from the loss of her husband to colon cancer in 1977. The income she failed to report to the IRS was mostly from her retirement pension, Social Security and rent from two small apartment units, he said. Goldberg added that “the great majority of people who purchased the kit from her never used it.”
“It was an alternative in the event that their life became so unlivable that they wanted to end it,” he said.
Postscript 12 January 2012:
It was reported that court records reveal Mrs Hydorn sold approximately thirteen hundred kits to people throughout the United States and abroad.
Postscript 8 May 2012:
Ms Hydorn was eventually sentenced yesterday with a non-custodial sentence. In return for the admission of guilt, The 92-yr-old avoided state court charges for her involvement in six suicides. However, she must pay a $1,000 fine, undergo supervised probation for five years, and cooperate with the IRS to determine and pay the amount of back taxes that are owed to the government. According to Assistant United States Attorney Peter J. Mazza who prosecuted the case, the plea arrangement was a compromise solution to stop the elderly woman from indiscriminately providing such do-it-yourself suicide devices.
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