Point, Click And Die

After her grandmother died, 21-year-old Julie Veteto sank into a severe depression. Still, her family was stunned the afternoon her husband, Roger, came home to find her body dangling from a dog leash in their bathroom doorway. The couple's computer was still connected to the Internet. On the screen: a Web site with detailed information on suicide by hanging.

"This stuff shouldn't be online," says Veteto's father, Rick Townsend. He insists that because of Julie's lifelong learning disabilities, "there's no way she would have known how to kill herself if they hadn't told her how."

The last year has seen a significant uptick in visitors to so-called pro-choice-suicide Web sites. And now, as more and more families come home to find a computer on and a loved one dead, the sites are coming under increasing legal scrutiny. Suicide may not be a crime, but in most states, helping someone commit suicide is. Julie Veteto's family is filing a lawsuit against the site that was on her computer screen. And authorities in St. Louis are deciding whether a recent death may give them the chance to bring assisted-suicide laws into the Information Age. Earlier this month a 52-year-old woman rented two helium tanks, carefully arranged herself on her living-room couch and ended her life with an overdose of the gas. Detectives at the scene found a printout from the Church of Euthanasia's Web site titled "How to Kill Yourself," detailing the most effective way to use helium to end your life. "When we can definitely prove that someone assisted a suicide, we'll prosecute, no matter what form that help takes," says St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Not surprisingly, the medical establishment is also upset. "The danger of these sites is they convince you life can be a balance sheet where you should add up the pluses and minuses, and then act from there," says Herbert Hendin, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Even right-to-die advocacy groups are distancing themselves from these Web sites. "When someone's in the grips of a mental illness like depression, they're not able to think rationally," says the Hemlock Society's Julian Rush. "This kind of unbridled freedom in this area can lead to a lot of abuse."

Meanwhile, the sites' fans have an almost evangelical fervor. "It's about the validation, the unconditional acceptance," says Maxine, an Ottawa resident whose son visited one of the sites almost daily until committing suicide nearly two years ago. Maxine, now a visitor herself, says she's glad her son was able to find a community to help him through his pain.

Talk like that makes Townsend feel physically ill. "These Web sites are evil," he says. "I believe with all my heart if that Web site hadn't been there, Julie would still be alive today." Soon, that will be a question for the courts to decide.

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