Egbert says he approved applications for about 300 suicides, most as medical director of the Final Exit Network, a loosely knit group that claims 3,000 dues-paying members. Even within his own organization, Egbert is controversial. The vast majority of the network’s members suffer from painful physical ailments such as late-stage cancer, he says. But unlike the group’s current leadership, Egbert is also willing, in extreme cases, he says, to serve as an “exit guide” for patients who have suffered from depression for extended periods of time.
At the same time that Egbert was guiding the people he refers to as his patients, Kevorkian was the embodiment of the national debate over assisted suicide, a figure of simultaneous international renown and scorn. But with Kevorkian gone — he died in June — two indictments of Egbert, one in Arizona and another in Georgia, have transformed him into the public face of American assisted suicide, a practice as tangled in controversy as the contents of the bag I had just opened. It has been more than 17 years since Oregon voters passed a ballot initiative approving the nation’s first assisted-suicide law for terminally ill patients. Only one other state — Washington — has legalized the procedure, and the American Medical Association remains firmly opposed. (Montana’s Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2009 that essentially sanctioned assisted suicide, but the legislature hasn’t formally passed a law, leaving the state in a legal limbo.)
Egbert has been acquitted in Arizona, but the Georgia case looms, trudging slowly through the court system toward a possible trial that could further shape national opinion about assisted suicide. Egbert lacks Kevorkian’s public relations flair — he’s not one to dress in costumes — and he lacks Kevorkian’s certitude. I expect to find an absolutist, a proselytizer for a cause, when I first drive to Baltimore to meet Lawrence Egbert. Instead, I encounter a man whose zeal is tempered by self-doubt.
“Once I am a true believer, that’s the time I should quit,” he says one afternoon. “I never get used to it. I’m not used to it now.”
Egbert has worked with patients who used barbiturates or morphine to speed their deaths, but he says those treatments can be hard to acquire in the quantities necessary to end life. Helium, on the other hand, is easy to get. Final Exit’s patients are instructed that they can buy helium tanks at party stores, Egbert tells me. Remnants of his clients’ visits to party stores lie beneath the hoods, at the bottom of Egbert’s garbage bag. Here is a pack of balloons. Pink, blue, yellow, green.