God has the power over life and death. God gives life. We can’t create life from nothing and we do not have the power to take it. That’s not what we have. We were given the job to help. We weren’t given the power to decide who’s going to live and who’s going to die. —Sue Celmer
The last time Sue Celmer saw her husband alive, he was hungry. John was always hungry. It was June 18, 2008, and they’d just been to the drugstore to get more pain medicine. He was still recovering from a twelve-hour surgery a month before—the latest in a series of operations that had removed all of the cancer from his mouth but left a half-dollar-sized hole in his jaw. Although doctors had patched the hole with skin from his chest, his face was still severely swollen. On the way home from the drugstore, John asked Sue to stop by McDonald’s for a cheeseburger. Because of the swelling and the difficulty of chewing, all his food had to be blended like a milkshake. At home, she put the cheeseburgers in the blender, without the buns, and John drank the liquefied meat. A hungry man, she thought, is a man who wants to live.
| Photograph courtesy of Sue Celmer
The next day Sue called John. She was going out with friends from church that night and wanted to be sure he’d be okay alone. The couple had separate residences in the same Cumming townhome community, but they were still close. They shared a car, the affection of her three children and eight grandkids from a previous marriage, and twenty-four years—some more difficult than others—spent as husband and wife. It had been a long, hard road, but her husband had miraculously walked out of the hospital with his life. Things would soon get better. She was sure of it. The federal government had recently begun to process John’s request for disability money. Sue believes in signs; this was a good one.
During the phone call, John said he’d be fine. He always said he’d be fine, whether he was or not. Lately he’d been in a bad state of mind, staying at home alone. Sue called him again that evening, while she was out, to see if he wanted her to stop by. “Just go home,” he told her. A while later, he called to make sure she was there. Then he hung up the phone and turned to the two strangers who were sitting on his couch, across an Oriental rug, in his living room. Their names were Ted Goodwin and Claire Blehr and they were there, as they would later acknowledge, so fifty-eight-year-old John Celmer could kill himself.
Goodwin and Blehr are members of the Final Exit Network, a national group then based in Marietta that John had contacted in the final months of his life. FEN advises the terminally ill—as well as those who are not dying but who suffer unrelenting physical pain—on how to commit suicide. According to Goodwin, the group’s president at the time of John’s death, FEN members have attended the deaths of almost 200 people since its founding in 2004, instructing them in the mechanism of their demise and often witnessing their last moments on earth.
Not surprisingly, the group is a flash point for controversy. Its work exposes America’s own unresolved attitude toward suicide. In 2005, a Pew Research Center poll found that almost half of Americans approve of laws permitting doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. But only three states make such allowances, and Georgia is not one of them. Indeed, in 1994 the state enacted a law forbidding the “direct and physical involvement, intervention, or participation” in a suicide. Celmer’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, ultimately led to the arrests of Goodwin and Blehr for allegedly violating that law.
Almost a year after their arrests, Goodwin and Blehr still have not been indicted, although Forsyth County prosecutors say they expect to bring the case to a grand jury this month. Emboldened by the delay, Final Exit Network members, after temporarily suspending their operations following the arrests, have resumed advising the afflicted on how to kill themselves.
It is still unclear whether a Georgia court will determine if advising someone and perhaps even holding his hand as he intentionally inhales a lethal quantity of helium is a criminal act. No court in Georgia has ever addressed this specific question, or the more philosophical one: What, exactly, does it mean to help someone die? And what, for that matter, does it mean to help someone live, to give them everything you have, and fail?
Sue Celmer sees no ambiguity. “In God’s eyes,” she claims, “John was murdered.”