Blast From the Past – 2009 Musings on Final Exit Network, Zealotry and Groupthink

Editor’s note: This is a post I wrote about the Final Exit Network in March of 2009.  It’s very relevant today, given the revelations discussed in yesterday’s post about the Frontline documentary that included a detailed look at the Final Exit Network.  Even back in 2009, I wondered – if the allegations about restraining peoples hands were true – what the likelihood was of “assistance” crossing the line to “murder.”

Of course, now that we know that GBI did, in fact, tape Ted Goodwin describing what he did to restrain people’s hands – even giving a demonstration that can be viewed by everyone, the question becomes more urgent than ever: Have these zealots crossed the line and committed murder – and if so, how often?

(The link to the AJC article below is nonactive, but the article itself should be available for purchase through the AJC site.)

Final Exit Network, Zealotry and Groupthink

March 10, 2009 | posted by Stephen Drake

The latest story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution centers on Dr. Lawrence Egbert, the “medical director” of Final Exit Network (FEN). According to the AJC, Egbert’s own words describe him as some sort of Bizarro-world version of Will Rogers, who said “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

In the Bizarro world of Egbert and company, it runs like this: “I (almost) never saw a suicide plea from someone who didn’t deserve to die.”

From the article:

As medical director and co-founder of the Georgia-based Final Exit Network, Egbert in the past four years approved the applications of people who wanted to die because they were diagnosed with terminal cancer.

He approved the applications of people who wanted to die because their bodies were wasting away with ALS or multiple sclerosis.

He approved the applications of people who had not been diagnosed as terminally ill but whose quality of life, in their mind, was no longer worth living.

Egbert, an 81-year-old Baltimore anesthesiologist and teacher affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in an interview Friday that there were times when he rejected people who wanted to die, “but not very frequently.”

Of course, the allegations from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation go beyond simply providing information and “being there.”:

The GBI says the group has a pattern of assisting people in suicides in which a “hood” is lowered over the person’s face, and the person breathes helium until losing consciousness. Death can take 10 or 20 minutes longer.

The GBI alleges that the group breaks state law by holding the hands of the person to prevent struggle or removal of the hood.

There’s no word yet as to whether or not the GBI has this on tape, which is a common practice in “sting” operations.

Friends and sympathizers reject the notion that members of FEN could ever have actively prevented someone from taking the “exit bag” off.

Yet, out of at least 200 (Egbert admits to this) suicides, there apparently hasn’t been one single case in which a person changed their mind – rejecting the feeling of suffocation and claustrophobia. Not one. If there had been one, that person would have needed immediate medical attention. There would be no time to get rid of evidence – paraphernalia, fingerprints, etc. before the paramedics arrived. There sure would be a lot of unpleasant questions to deal with – and possibly a civil suit by the family if brain damage occurred.

But that is pretty cynical and self-serving motivation. It’s easy enough for those of us who don’t think much of the ethics of pro-euthanasia/assisted suicide activists to believe members of FEN would slide from “assistance” to “murder.”

But most people probably don’t feel that way. It’s unthinkable, many would say, that intelligent and ethical people could let their behavior lapse so badly.

Guess what. It’s not unthinkable at all. In fact there’s a name for the phenomenon in which intelligent and ethical individuals – as members of a tightly knit group – can do stupid and unethical things.

It’s called groupthink – originally studied and defined by psychologist Irving Janis. It’s a fascinating and complex topic, with some real-world examples.

Janis identified eight symptoms that put a group of individuals at risk for falling into groupthink:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mindguards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

After years of operating without any consequences, it’s easy to see how FEN members could have developed a feedling of invulnerability. Anyone who has lurked on Derek Humphry’s (Humphry is an advisor to FEN) email list or engaged the most zealous euthanasia supporters has encountered the symptoms covered in numbers 2-4 firsthand. Number 5 has played out on Derek Humphry’s email list several times – most notably when one member suggested that Jack Kevorkian’s activities in assisted suicide might have been reckless and irresponsible. Seeing that kind of thing play out makes it quite possible that there is at least some degree of self-censorship going on within the movement to avoid the dogpiling that occurred in the Kevorkian episode. That, of course, leads to the illusion of unanimity. While it’s impossible to know if there were “mindguards” in FEN itself, Humphry is pretty careful in handpicking information sent out to his list, highlighting news items that reinforce the “rightness” of his cause and framing the opponents as opportunists and/or religious zealots.

So, even starting from the highly questionable assumption that FEN members are moral and ethical people, they operate in a world that is geared toward the erosion of those aspects of their character in favor of group cohesion, loyalty and self-preservation.

2 thoughts on “Blast From the Past – 2009 Musings on Final Exit Network, Zealotry and Groupthink

  1. Thank you for the name: Groupthink. I personally feel that any group that uses personal decisions of termination for persuasion has crossed a line. The line in forgetting there are names, histories, lives, situations that exist: real people, not political or social ideas or fears.

    How much of NDY falls into groupthink? Who plays the contrary for the ideas of NDY and is respected by the group? Can people accept that case A went too far but many of the fears of the group are groundless? Or is it all or nothing?

    I know those who were disabled who used Final Exit. But I think of them as a person. They died because they were extremely unhappy. IF they blamed the disability for their unhappiness, it doesn’t mean they were right, any more than someone who has severe depression and kills themselves is ‘evil’, if they say that is why they did it. It seems to blame the victim to see only the disability when looking at the dead, and then want others to respect you as an individual, looking beyond a disability.

    1. Elizabeth – anyone who wants to commit suicide is “extremely unhappy” – whether or not they’re disabled, terminally ill or young and nondisabled. Especially when you get beyond “terminal” as an “elibility” requirement, what is the justification for offering assistance to just desperately despairing people who are old, ill or disabled? Why not offer the same to young, nondisabled people who don’t want to live? Why view their suicides as tragedies and greet our suicides with applause and admiration for our “bravery”?

      I don’t know how to respond to your attempt to talk about NDY in terms of groupthink, since it seems you’re using a very different model than the one by Irving Janis that was the heart of that particular post. But – NDY is challenged constantly. In so-called “progressive” circles, we are criticized, attacked or dismissed for our opposition. NDY activists are part of the larger network of disability activists (e.g. ADAPT) that work on virtually every other disability rights issue in the US.

      We’re out in the open. And we don’t hold anyone’s hands down. 😉

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