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Local senior's "suicide kit" business ignites controversy

Controversy is brewing over a so-called "suicide kit" you can buy by mail, and a 91-year-old San Diego County woman is at the heart of it.
Local senior's "suicide kit" business ignites controversy

[NOTE: The photograph in the video version of this story which demonstrates the helium hood on a mannequin was taken by Russel Ogden, and published in Journal of Medical Ethics.)

Controversy is brewing over a so-called "suicide kit" you can buy by mail, and a 91-year-old San Diego County woman is at the heart of it.

For the past four years, she has sold "helium hoods": a service that has generated considerable opposition. That opposition is continuing to grow, following the death of a young man who purchased one of those kits from an El Cajon senior to help take his own life.

But the woman behind this growing business says she is providing a valuable service.

"It is not my intention to hurt anybody, but to offer people comfort when they die," said the 91-year-old, whose identity News 8 agreed to conceal.

When she first started, she said she sold, on average, two kits every month. Each kit, which essentially consists of a plastic hood and plastic tubing, costs $60 each.

"I've created a monster here," she said, "because it takes so much time. But I'm up to 45 (of the kits) a month."

One of her customers was 29-year-old Nick Klonoski, an Oregon resident who dealt with depression, but was not terminally ill. Klonoski used the kit three months ago, along with a rented helium tank and instructions obtained from the book "Final Exit," to take his own life.

His suicide has now sparked a movement to outlaw the sale of these kits in Oregon.

"You can not end your life with this kit, so I think it's totally unenforceable," said Faye Girsh, president of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, which advocates for the individual's right to decide when and how one dies.

"If I were his mother, I'd be very upset," Girsh said, "but I don't think I'd be very upset because somebody provided a peaceful means to end his life."

But opponents of assisted suicide say the availability of these kits sends the wrong message.

"I think it's frankly outrageous that things like these suicide kits can be sold by mail or on-line without any kind of thought as to how that's going to be used," said Laura Remson Mitchell of Californians Against Assisted Suicide.

"The easier you make it to for people to die, the more likely they are going to take advantage of that, and the less likely they will look for other ways in dealing with their problems," Mitchell added.

As for the kit's provider, she has no plans to quit. "If it weren't valuable, people wouldn't buy it, you know?" she told News 8.

The kit's provider says she does no direct advertising of her own and does not sell the kit to make money.

She also believes selling the kit is legal.

"It is legal, because to assist somebody to die, you have to be there to turn the tank on," she said. Currently, assisting another person in committing suicide is against the law in 41 states, including California.

Assisted suicide is legal in the states of Oregon, Washington and Montana.

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