Ogden discovered that although the methods used for dying are similar (most involve drug overdose), attitudes toward assisted death are quite different. In Europe, people have a more passive and deferential approach, allowing a dear one to make the decision, usually after the person has lapsed into unconsciousness or has severe dementia, Ogden explains. "In the U.S. and Canada, there is a big push for assisted suicide where patients make the decision of when to die and take the drugs themselves; it's more individualistic and autonomous."
Ogden's study, however, abruptly ended: In 1998 Exeter reneged on its promise, citing concern over institutional liability. Fearing legal intervention, Ogden did not chance publishing his data without protection and thus left the university and his work behind. Ogden returned, sans Ph.D., to Vancouver, where he began teaching criminology as well as shifting his studies to the NuTech movement, a loose coalition of right-to-die activists from several nations. Since 1999 he has collected hundreds of interviews and reports from NuTech and may be the only outsider to have been invited to its secret meetings.
NuTech's approach is to take medicine out of assisted death, with methods that are simple, painless, inexpensive and impossible to trace. Suffocation devices, such as the "debreather," a modified piece of scuba diving equipment, and the "exit bag," a plastic bag equipped with Velcro straps, are commonly used. Most popular, Ogden has found, is the plastic bag in conjunction with helium gas. "This is the quickest way to go; used properly, you're unconscious after the second breath and dead in about 10 minutes," he reveals. Such methods are more efficient and reliable than lethal drugs, but suffocation devices remain unappealing and undignified to people. Most still want something they can drink. In that case, death providers recommend black-market Nembutal, a liquid barbiturate used by veterinarians to put down animals.
NuTech is at the forefront of what Ogden calls the "deathing counterculture," in which nonmedical death practitioners offer referrals, consultations and house calls. "They are taking the place of physicians to deliver virtually undetectable death assistance," says Ogden, who notes that the most famous death provider, Jack Kevorkian, began his career as a pathologist, not a personal physician, and did not see patients. What is more, he has found that this counterculture is growing in direct response to the lack of supporting legislation. But Ogden sees problems with NuTech: no medical or counseling personnel to ensure mental competence, no informed consent and no exploration of treatment alternatives. Hence, the NuTech practice will be difficult to regulate and protect from abuse.
Opponents do not see how Ogden's research can be of any benefit, especially because there is no way to verify if participants' responses are truthful. "Most people who study this want to show that assisted suicide is occurring quite commonly, therefore we should just bite the bullet and legalize it," says Margaret Somerville, director of the Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, who argues that assisted death and euthanasia reduce the respect for life. Still, Ogden's work has informed public and political debates. For example, in Ottawa, Senate committees in Parliament have repeatedly relied on his data for their reports and recommendations.
Ogden expects to receive his doctorate for his NuTech work soon, but beyond that, his future is uncertain. Without a university position, he will have a hard time securing government funding. Thus far he has covered the cost of his research partly with settlement money he received after filing grievances against both Simon Fraser and Exeter.
Despite his years of research, Ogden has not experienced one thing he feels is critical: witnessing covert assisted death. "It's one thing to be told what's happening and it's another to actually see it. To my knowledge, I would be the first researcher to do this," he says. More controversy would surely follow.
This article was originally published with the title A Culture of Death.