Death Comes to Cyberspace:..

Author: David Morrison


by David Morrison

The Culture of Death has arrived on the Internet. The Right To Die Society of Canada, one of the Canadian organizations dedicated to promoting a legal "right" to assisted suicide, has developed a highly sophisticated and well-organized site on the Internet's growing World Wide Web.

The site, which runs under the name of DeathNET, blends a colorful and contemporary style with an easy to navigate platform and a comprehensive set of organization links to provide Internet users with information on almost all aspects of death. So successful have site developers been that Britain's net magazine named DeathNET as the best "Health and Medical" site on the Internet in 1995 and similar organizations have recognized DeathNet as being among the top 5 percent of Internet sites.

Selling suicide

DeathNET uses four different avenues to try to convince visitors to adopt a prodeath position. First, the site offers a view of death which is youthful, energetic and attractive. Beginning with the very home page, visitors are shown bright colors and a basic platform which looks far more like something you would see in a video arcade than in a funeral home.

Second, DeathNET presents a full range of pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide documents. Whole sections of the site (under the mocking heading of "Last Rights") are dedicated to testimony gathered at pro-euthanasia hearings and court decisions involving right-to-die cases.

Third, DeathNET proposes several means for making death more emotionally palatable for those considering suicide and their families. Among the site's most cutting edge innovations are those found in the Garden of Remembrance, a place where the dead can be memorialized "forever" (barring technical difficulty) with text, pictures and even audio/video presentations.

"Those who are remembered, never die," advises the Garden's opening page In addition, DeathNET will soon offer, according to the posted notes, an area devoted to the purchase of services for the dying, everything from caskets to floral arrangements and insurance. ("Inquiries from interested advertisers are welcome.")

An entire world of death

But DeathNET's both most sinister and accomplished innovations are the links it offers to an entire world of death on the Internet. Directly from DeathNET pages, visitors are able to move to sites representing a wide number of organizations, ranging from support groups for those suffering illness to other pro-euthanasia organizations and even mainstream medical groups such the Canadian Medical Association and major universities around the world.

The links with disease support groups is a particularly troubling aspect of this site. Should anyone move into those groups from DeathNET, it will only be after significant exposure to the anti-life message and attitude the site preaches. For example, what effect would the arrival of a woman convinced of the merits of assisted suicide have on a support group for women struggling to survive breast cancer (one of the groups accessible from DeathNET)?

There are also disturbing allegations that The Right To Die Society of Canada, and DeathNET, distribute literature via Internet advertising which enables suicidal people to pursue their interest to its fatal conclusion. Recent stories in British newspapers have carried a story which alleges a British woman, suffering from arthritis and osteoporosis (neither of which is a particularly terminal disease) was found dead by suicide with a brochure detailing the method of her self-destruction beside her. Her husband has told the papers that he believes the brochure, which he said he thought was published in Canada, guided her on her suicidal quest.

John Hofsess, developer of DeathNET and founder of the Right To Die Society of Canada, has expressed doubt about the allegation and has commented that "the National Hemlock Society does not publish how-to leaflets or brochures with explicit instructions on how to commit suicide."

This very well may be true for the National Hemlock Society, but it is not true of the closely associated Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization (ERGO). They do publish just such a booklet called Self-Deliverance from an End-Stage Terminal Illness by Use of a Plastic Bag, by Derek Humphrey, and that publication is available for order on both DeathNET and on ERGO's online site which is one of those linked to DeathNET.

Lack of honesty

One further problem with DeathNET is its relative lack of honesty. Although the name DeathNET would seem to convey all that was needed about their perspective, DeathNET claims on its opening page that it is "an international archive specializing in all aspects of death and dying- with a sincere respect for every point of view."

However, such respect does not seem to extend to those people who do not feel society should be forced to participate in human self-destruction.

In one particularly hyperbolic essay, DeathNET developer John Hofsess charged that the Catholic Church "bases its survival on the tactic of engaging its followers in intense political struggle over such issues as birth control, abortion and sexual behavior." DeathNET has a point of view, certainly, but it is not respectful of those who oppose them.

DeathNET's arrival in the rapidly expanding arena of the World Wide Web must be seen as a matter of deep concern, particularly because of Hofsess' apparent commitment to using cutting edge technology to advance the pro-death message. In the roughly eight months since DeathNET's appearance it has received an estimated 30,000 visitors, and Hofsess claims new "hits" on the site come in between 225-300 per day.

Many of these visitors, according to demographic estimates (see page 3), are at the stage of life when basic opinions about these types of issues are formed. Some of these same people will make long-term care and health decisions for their parents in another 20 to 30 years and it is imperative, at least from the perspective of the aging parent, that these younger people begin appreciating the Church's truth concerning the dignity of all human life.

DeathNET Visitor Profile

Although there is no accurate way to keep count of exactly who might visit an Internet site like DeathNET, there have been some surveys of Internet and World Wide Web users.

One such survey was completed in April 1995 by Georgia Tech's College of Computing. Its 1995 Graphics, Visualization and Usability survey revealed the following basic facts about Internet and

World Wide Web users at the time of the survey:

Most of them are men (X2 percent) and half of them are between the age of 25 to 35; They range from middle to upper middle class, with household incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 per year. Overall, there are estimated to be 28 million regular Internet users in the United States, with about 14 million of them having regular access to the Web.

David Morrison recently joined the staff at HLI headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md.

Taken from the October 1995 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports 7845 Airpark Road, Suite E Gaithersburg, MD 20879