Helium vs hydrogen sulphide – when will the madness stop?

Three news stories in the past 24 hours – one needlessly unpleasant death by hydrogen sulphide, a woman sentenced for providing the means for a more painless death, and an organisation attacked in the courts for providing information and support to those planning to end their life due to intolerable suffering.

60-yr-old Thomas Walsh from Rhode Island USA took his life alone in his car, sitting in a disused parking lot and mixing household chemicals to produce a horrible, noxious gas.

92-yr-old Sharlotte Hydorn was sentenced to five years’ probation after selling helium hoods by post – a small piece of equipment that it is easy enough to make yourself but which Hydorn felt was would be a public service to provide. (Death by helium is painless and dignified.)

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom convened a grand jury with the aim of prosecuting volunteer members of Final Exit Network, an American group that offers information on painless death by helium and then offers to sit with someone, providing some human company in their last few moments. (Final Exit Network’s website states it requires people seeking such help committing suicide to provide a written statement explaining their desire to “seek an early peaceful death” and a statement from at least one doctor giving the person’s diagnosis and prognosis.)

Thomas Walsh didn’t approach Final Exit Network. He didn’t have a helium hood from Sharlotte Hydorn. He probably didn’t have a guide book such as Five Last Acts II, or Final Exit or Peaceful Pill (which also detail the helium method). He wasn’t a young, vulnerable teenager. He wasn’t an undergraduate who was plunged into depression by the burden of exams. He was an adult. His dangerous, degrading and probably very unpleasant (and possibly highly painful) means of death is a direct reflection on a society that tries to censor knowledge.

Suicide intervention is an important aspect of any civilised society – to give a helping, loving hand to those who might be suffering such crippling, temporary despair. Thousands of people end their life by suicide every year and only a minute proportion of those use safe and painless methods – it is not the Hydorns of this world that we need to target. Neither is it organisations like Exit and Final Exit Network. If people could contact their doctors, for instance, asking advice following a rational wish to die due to intolerable and unrelievable suffering, it would open many worthwhile avenues:

  • for those whose suffering cannot be treated and who have a persistent wish to die, they could be advised on methods such as helium;
  • doctors would no longer risk prosecution for helping to relieve suffering when that meant shortening life at the patient’s explicit and persistent request;
  • for those whose suffering could be treated, knowing that the law allowed their doctor unbiased options would encourage them to come forward;
  • palliative care would be improved and made more accessible – as no-one wants to see someone end their life needlessly.

Instead, we will continue to see painful ‘back yard’ suicides. Suicides that could have been avoided . . . or, if not entirely avoided when no other option prevailed, at least made a little safer, a little more dignified, a little more painfree, and – it has to be said – a little more civilised.

Man who gassed himself identified
Great-grandmother fined over mail order suicide kits
Dakota County grand jury to consider assisted-suicide charges
The Samaritans – suicide intervention, emotional support (UK)
Befrienders (International group, similar to Samaritans)
Five Last Acts – responsible information on painless methods of ending one’s own life

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