'Exit Bags' Stir Up Death Debate

Steve Bishop, a spokesman for the Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, whose jurisdiction includes Brisbane, where the bag production is proposed, said the issue of euthanasia divides people much like the abortion debate. He dismissed Nitschke's efforts as little more than a stunt.

"We'll wait and see how this unfolds, make sure whatever [Exit Australia] does fits in with the existing legislation," Bishop said, emphasizing the government's support of respite care centers for the terminally ill.

Exit Australia has faced tougher opposition from the local Catholic church, which has taken a hard line against the movement's efforts.

"The question about whether the suicide bag is painless or not, in fact, has no bearing on my judgment or that of the Church about the morality of its use or especially of assisting people to use it," Bishop Michael Putney told ABCNEWS.com in an e-mail.

Putney said groups like Exit Australia target depressed elderly women who are vulnerable to suggestion, but he said the church has no strategy for approaching the group other than to spread its own message.

Nitschke insists there are many in Australia who support Exit Australia and he is confident the nation's euthanasia laws will be overturned eventually. But for now, he said, the issue is too controversial for public officials to defend his cause.

The Great Beyond

The Exit Bag is not an Australian phenomenon. Proper instructions for its use were detailed in a book by right-to-die guru Derek Humphrey in 1991. In the late 1990s, the Right to Die Society of Canada began taking orders for Exit Bags over the Internet.

In the United States, the Denver-based Hemlock Society, founded by Humphrey, serves many of the same functions as Exit Australia — educating the terminally ill about their death and lobbying state legislatures to adopt physician-assisted suicide laws.

Since 1998, members of the Caring Friends program of the Hemlock Society have visited patients and educated them about their options concerning death — among them, the availability of Exit Bags.

Most recently, the Hemlock Society has taken up a battle with the U.S. Justice Department after Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to overturn Oregon's Death with Dignity law.

Of the more than 100 patients who have sought assistance from Caring Friends before their death since it was created in 1998, most have used an Exit Bag, said spokesman Ryan Ross. Ross declined to discuss where Hemlock members obtain their Exit Bags, or even how the bags work, for fear of the device's misuse.

"Death is the biggest taboo we have left," he said.

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