A Culture of Death

In the underworld of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Russel Ogden examines the means and methods--even as he is shunned by academia and chased by the law

In 1990 David Lewis, a Vancouver man living with HIV, went to a local newspaper and announced that he had assisted eight friends, all suffering from AIDS, in committing suicide--an act of murder in the eyes of Canadian law. For many people, the news simply affirmed what they had long suspected was happening in the AIDS community. But to Russel Ogden, a criminology graduate student at Simon Fraser University looking for a research project, it was an opportunity to go where no scientist had ventured before.

"I had a population in my backyard that had been living with euthanasia issues for some time," recalls Ogden, who is believed by many to be the first researcher in North America to have formally studied the practices of underground assisted suicide and euthanasia. In 1994 Ogden published his master's thesis, which documented the inner workings of this illicit network. The findings shocked the nation and branded him one of Canada's most controversial researchers.

In the decade since, Ogden has faced legal and ethical roadblocks. The authorities have repeatedly pressured him to identify his informants. Such brushes with the law have convinced him to hide his research: he now keeps his data hidden in several locations around town. And at 42, the Vancouver-based Ogden should by now be a well-established scientist. Instead he is still chasing his Ph.D. long-distance at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands--Canadian universities have shut him out. Lack of the usual academic credentials, however, has not stopped Ogden. He wants to know who asks for assisted death, who provides it and how it is done.

Such grisly details were revealed in Ogden's first study, in which 17 individuals, including doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers and two priests, told him precisely how they had helped AIDS patients kill themselves. But the biggest surprise was that many of these deaths were not the "good deaths" often described in proeuthanasia books, which tend to romanticize the process. Of the 34 euthanasia cases, Ogden found that half were botched and ultimately resulted in increased suffering. In five situations, suffocation was unsuccessful. In one instance, the individual who assisted in the suicide had to resort to shooting the patient--in another, to slitting his wrists with a razor blade. These failed attempts often led to the acts of euthanasia taking several hours or longer to complete; in one case, it took four days for the person to die.

Unregulated euthanasia has occurred under conditions akin to back-alley abortions.

These people were first- or second-timers, "not serial death providers," Ogden remarks. "They weren't sure what they were doing." He concluded that the lack of medical knowledge, as well as the unavailability of suitable drugs and ignorance of lethal doses, contributed to the additional suffering. "This study showed that without medical supervision and formal regulations, euthanasia is happening in horrific circumstances, similar to back-alley abortions," he declares.

In February 1994 news of Ogden's study spread quickly, eventually making its way to the coroner's office. Ogden soon found himself staring at a subpoena demanding that he reveal the names of his informants, each potentially facing prosecution. Ogden refused, never wavering on his promise to his participants, and chose to risk jail time.

Amid the battle, Simon Fraser University abandoned him, leaving Ogden to conduct his own defense. He successfully argued that his research passed Canada's Wigmore criteria, a set of common law privileges that excused him from disclosing his confidential sources. The coroner eventually dropped the charges.

With a tarnished reputation in Canada, Ogden went to the University of Exeter in England in 1995, where he resumed his studies of assisted death in AIDS patients--with assurances that the university would stand behind him and his research subjects. So for three years he interviewed nearly 100 physicians and nonmedical death providers in the U.K., the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands--the last is one of only three countries where national law allows doctors to assist in dying. (Oregon has a state law permitting physician-assisted death.)

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