Facing serious illness, most of us don't want to suffer ourselves or stand by and see another person in pain.

That sentiment is understandable, especially in cases of terminal illness. However, it's still illegal in most states, including Minnesota, to help someone end their life.

A Dakota County indictment of a national right-to-die group highlights the slippery slope that assisted suicide presents. County Attorney James Backstrom said last week that he is bringing charges against the Final Exit Network and four of its members on 17 counts of assisting a suicide and tampering with a death scene.

The case involved a 57-year-old Apple Valley woman who had suffered chronic pain for 10 years. Investigators said Doreen Dunn contacted Final Exit, became a member and obtained an "exit guide'' suicide manual from the group. Then on May 30, 2007, she killed herself with helium and a plastic bag.

Two Final Exit volunteers allegedly were with Dunn and removed any evidence of suicide to help make the death appear natural. Attorneys for the network and one of the defendants said they will argue that the Minnesota law is too broad.

An investigation in Georgia uncovered Dunn's links to Final Exit. Until Dunn's family members heard from local authorities, they believed she had died of coronary artery disease.

Some in the right-to-die movement believe it's compassionate to help a person die on their own terms, but only two states -- Oregon and Washington -- allow physician-assisted suicide in terminal cases. If society allows assisted suicides in nonterminal cases, where will the line be drawn?

If pain is a good enough reason to help a person die, what about depression or other difficult diseases that might be treatable? How long before assisted suicide is encouraged for people who are too old or require too many expensive services?

Oregon's 1998 ''Death With Dignity Act'' applies only to terminal patients who are expected to die within six months. The medically assisted deaths must be done under the supervision of a doctor and in the presence of witnesses, including family members.

The patient has to be deemed capable of making the decision after consulting with a physician and psychologist and completing counseling. Detailed documentation must be kept and reported to the state health department to avoid abuses.

It would be reasonable for Minnesota to adopt that kind of law -- and that discussion should take place. As Backstrom noted, "If we're going to allow assisted suicide, it should only be done though very controlled conditions ... with adequate protections for the patient and their families.''

Final Exit is primarily a group of volunteers, and it's unclear whether they have the expertise to properly evaluate those who want to end their lives.

Doreen Dunn's death isn't the first Minnesota case of assisted suicide. Just last year, William Melchert-Dinkel, a former nurse from Faribault, was convicted of convincing two people over the Internet to take their own lives.

As the Dunn and Melchert-Dinkel cases illustrate, no matter how humane suicide "helpers" believe their acts to be, they can't be allowed to ignore laws that protect vulnerable people from making decisions that end their lives prematurely.


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