Right-to-Die Advocate Jerry Dincin Awaits His Own Exit

THIS WAY OUT?: The Final Exit Network president has helped 14 gravely ill people end their lives. Now, at 81, the Highland Park resident faces a terminal illness himself

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A younger photo of Dincin
Dincin holds a photo of his younger, healthier self
 

Dincin’s first experience with death was his father’s sudden heart attack when Dincin was 16. By the time he rushed home from summer camp, the old man was gone. He and his mother wound up taking over his father’s furniture business in Manhattan.

Eventually Dincin earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a master’s in social work. He took a job in psychiatric rehabilitation—helping people with mental disorders adjust to daily life—in New York City, then started two similar programs in New Jersey. In 1965, he moved to Chicago to head Thresholds, a social service agency in Ravenswood that assists the mentally ill. While running Thresholds, Dincin got his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Northwestern University.

He couldn’t have done it without Susanne Streicker, a blond 20 years his junior who grew up in Evanston: Working as his assistant, she helped him research his dissertation. Streicker ultimately became a supervisor at Thresholds before leaving in 1989 and adopting children. Although he talked to her once in a while, Dincin didn’t see her again until 1999. Not long after separating from his first wife, he ran into Streicker at a mental health conference in Minnesota. “We just struck up a good friendship,” he says. “And it’s worked out beautifully.”

After his cancer diagnosis at age 70, Dincin retired from his job. A few years later, he found himself drawn to the right-to-die movement.

He stumbled across an article about the Hemlock Society of Illinois in the Chicago Tribune and learned its history. Derek Humphry, author of Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide, had founded the society in 1980 to counteract assisted suicide restrictions in America, through both legislation and individual counseling. The Final Exit Network emerged from Hemlock, becoming a nonprofit in 2004. Today it claims 3,000 members nationwide, about 200 of them in Illinois.

Dincin had always been interested in issues of social justice. His illness “triggered a sense of apprehension about dying, something I’d never felt,” he recalls. “I wanted the right to die when I chose, and I felt others should have that right too.”

Dincin and his wife, Susanne
Dincin with his wife, Susanne, in 2005, after swimming with seals in the Galapagos Islands.

While some other right-to-die groups, such as Compassion and Choices, focus on legislative advocacy, FEN takes a personal approach. It shows people in the agonies of terminal illness or chronic pain how to die on their own terms. The group claims to have helped some 200 Americans die over the last decade: sufferers from cancer, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, Parkinson’s, and other diseases they could no longer endure.

FEN members stress that they are not executioners in the mold of the late Jack Kevorkian, the polarizing medical pathologist and assisted suicide activist who used a DIY machine to help 130 people end their lives. Instead, they cast themselves as end-of-life advisers, protected by the First Amendment, who offer guidance and emotional support to those with “intolerable suffering.” Deaths are referred to as “exits”; the counselors are “exit guides.”

The group’s leaders say that they follow a lengthy interview process with prospective exit candidates, which can take months. A FEN-affiliated doctor examines each person’s medical history. If the candidate has exhausted every other option and proves to be mentally competent, one or more exit guides offer counseling on the easiest way to die and other end-of-life matters, such as whether or not to involve family. If the person requests it, the guides may witness his or her last moments on earth. “It’s the quintessence of compassion,” says Rosalie Guttman, a gerontologist in Hyde Park who currently leads the Illinois chapter of the Hemlock Society.

Dincin joined FEN in 2004 and became an exit guide in 2005. When I ask him about handling that role, what Dincin describes is somewhat clinical, along the lines of how a medical doctor treats patients: with compassion yet slightly detached. He mentions a woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Arizona and a woman with Huntington’s disease in Tennessee. But he says he can’t remember all of the exiting FEN members’ names, nor where most of them lived or what ailed them. Forgetting has helped him move on.

All told, Dincin says, he has witnessed 14 deaths. One of them, in May 2007, was Doreen Dunn’s.

Dunn had long been plagued with chronic pain due to complications from surgery some years before and had become a member of FEN in January 2007, according to prosecutors.

Medications reportedly did little to relieve her suffering. She was spending most of her time lying on the sofa of her home in Apple Valley, Minnesota. That’s where she was, watching TV, when Dincin and FEN’s former medical director Larry Egbert, a physician from Baltimore, arrived.

Dincin and Egbert sat with Dunn and watched her asphyxiate inside a plastic hood that she had connected to a helium tank, the way that FEN recommends exiting. It was over quickly. “I don’t think we were there for an hour,” Dincin says. “She wanted desperately to die, and I was just really there as a witness.”

Assisting a suicide is illegal in most states, though the criminal statutes vary. In Illinois, for example, giving physical assistance in a suicide is a crime, but giving advice is not; in Minnesota both are illegal. (Oregon and Washington allow terminally ill patients to end their lives by taking lethal medications prescribed by a physician; in 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that “we find nothing in the plain language of Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy.”)

Despite the fact that a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of Americans approve of it, physician-assisted suicide is firmly opposed by the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians. It “is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks,” states the AMA’s official policy. Most major religions also forbid assisted suicide, by a physician or anyone else.

But FEN officials argue that what they do is not assistance. “We’ve worked for years to ensure that exit guides do not break the law,” says Robert Rivas, the general counsel for FEN. “They do not provide the means [or] any physical assistance. They provide only information and a supportive presence.”

That distinction was lost on Georgia authorities. In February 2009, they arrested FEN’s president at the time, Ted Goodwin, and three others, charging them with assisting in the suicide of a man suffering from oral cancer. Its attorneys argued that preventing people from learning about committing suicide violates freedom of speech, which is protected in the Constitution.

The argument worked. In Georgia and in Arizona, which had brought similar charges that same year, no FEN members who went to trial—including Goodwin—were found guilty.

As a condition of bail, Goodwin had to dial back his involvement with FEN. In February 2009, Dincin, who had been voted FEN’s vice president in 2007, replaced him as president. “I definitely did not want the president’s responsibilities,” he says, “[but] I felt that the best option for FEN to stay functioning was for me to assume those duties.”

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Photography: (top) Daniel Shea; (right) courtesy of Dincin

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