By Steve Strunsky
Religion News Service
HILLSIDE, N.J. (RNS) The huge black billboard is hard to miss, looming over a stretch of Route 22 like a harbinger of death, or at least the right to die:
"My Life, My Death, My Choice, FinalExitNetwork.org"
The 15-by-49-foot billboard went up June 28, paid for by Final Exit Network, a nationwide group that provides guidance to adults seeking to end a life of constant pain from incurable illness.
The billboard, along with one in San Francisco and another planned for Florida, anchors a national campaign by the network to raise awareness of itself and its mission. Members say the locations were chosen for their reputations as being socially progressive and, in Florida's case, for its elderly population.
"What we're trying to do is let people know that Final Exit Network exists, and that we're here, and if they spend a little time trying to find out what we do, they might actually support us," said Bob Levine, 88, of Princeton, who founded the group's New Jersey chapter after his first wife died of cancer.
Levine said reaction on the organization's website has been mixed: "From, 'God bless you, we finally have somebody who understands us,' to 'You are a bunch of atheists and you ought to be put in jail."'
Criticism has also come from two other corners: suicide prevention counselors and the Catholic Church.
Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the message "cannot be condoned."
"The Catholic Church teaches, and has always taught, that all human life has dignity and all human life is precious," he said.
Therapists called the billboard "irresponsible," arguing it could serve as a "tipping point" for troubled teens or others at risk of suicide.
"The idea of any of these upset, impressionable kids seeing a billboard like that absolutely horrifies me," said Judith Springer, a Morristown psychologist and board member of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. "You can't filter who sees a publicly displayed sign."
At least one motorist driving by the billboard had a similar opinion. Minji Ryu, 30, of South Amboy said the billboard's message was vague and could "give a totally different message to teenagers," who might take it as condoning suicide under any circumstance.
James Pride, 54, of Newark, a plumber who was filling up at a gas station near the billboard, said he hadn't noticed the sign, but once the issue was explained said, "I can understand it in certain situations."
The network takes its name from the 1991 best seller "Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying" by Derek Humphry. Humphry, an advisor to the network, said this is the first right-to-die public awareness campaign in the U.S. to use billboards.
"Nobody in the movement has had the idea before," the 80-year-old author said. "It's the freedom of information, the right to express yourself, which is holy in America. People are entitled to look at it or not. I think it's a good idea to get people thinking."
The network does not advocate physician-assisted suicide, a practice associated with Jack Kevorkian, who served eight years in prison on a second-degree murder charge in Michigan in 1999, after he gave a lethal injection to a man with Lou Gehrig's disease. Instead, it recommends suffocation by donning an air-tight hood and inhaling helium pumped in through a tube.
"We offer guidance and the most current information known for self-deliverance when the person is ready to choose," according to the network's website. "Safeguards are in place to ensure that the person's decision is voluntary and repeatedly stated."
Levine, a retired engineer, said safeguards include an interview with end-of-life "guides," who also require medical records of an illness.
"I think it is outrageous for somebody to tell me how I can end my life," he said. "Who appointed them in charge of my life? I think it's kind of sad that people make this assumption that there's not really much they can do about it. If somebody wants to end their life, there's too many cases where, rather than doing it in a way that we advise, they shoot themselves or jump off a building."
Levine said Final Exit has 3,000 members nationwide. The network has guided dozens of suicides, he said, including "at least one" in New Jersey, which Levine refused to identify.
Thomas E. Goodwin, a physician who founded the network in Florida in 2004, is facing criminal charges of violating Georgia's law against assisted suicide in the 2008 death of a 58-year-old man at his home near Atlanta. Network members face similar charges in Arizona. New Jersey also prohibits assisted suicide.
Hillside Mayor Joe Menza said he did not condone the message, and that his own father clung to life despite cancer that killed him at age 65. He said he hadn't received any complaints about the billboard and the group had a right to deliver its message.
"They do have freedom of speech," he said.
(Steve Strunsky writes for The Star-Ledger. Rohan Mascarenhas contributed to this story.)