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Advocatus Diaboli

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 1.

If You Want Something Done Right ...

"Suicide is against Roman law. The penalty is death."

from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

In the right-to-die debate, a funny thing happened on the way to respectability. Its focus shifted and hardly anyone noticed.

Just five years ago, it was radical to claim that people have a right to end their lives. Then events began to shift popular opinion. Derek Humphry's Final Exit, kind of a Whole Earth Catalog of suicide, became a surprise best-seller. Jack Kevorkian made physician-assisted suicide a reality - and proved that juries wouldn't indict someone who practiced it at all responsibly. Right-to-die propositions started cropping up on state ballots, though voters didn't approve them at first. According to polls, roughly half of all Americans think assisted suicide should be legal. Among the elderly the figure is higher.

Most recently, the U.S. Second and Ninth Circuit courts struck down anti-assisted suicide statutes in New York and Washington. Those decisions face review by the Supreme Court this term (see Ron Lindsay, "Assisted Suicide: Will the Supreme Court Respect the Autonomy Rights of Dying Patients?", Free Inquiry, Winter 1996-7, pp. 4-5). The Council for Secular Humanism and the International Academy of Humanism have filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the circuit court decisions. Is anyone surprised that the Clinton Administration weighed in on the other side?

But did you notice what shifted? Five years ago, most of the activists who spoke about de-stigmatizing suicide were really talking about suicide - or "self-deliverance," the euphemism popularized by Hemlock. Humphry's Final Exit was the last major development on the topic that addressed suicide as such. Since then the focus has been almost exclusively on physician-assisted suicide.

The difference matters. In one sense physician assisted suicide is a larger issue; it demands another's cooperation in one's death. But there's another sense in which restricting the debate to physician-assisted suicide makes the issue narrower and more tractable. Enmeshing suicide in the matrix of healthcare ensures that any reforms that do occur will have few implications in cases that don't involve critical illness.

I think this moves in exactly the wrong direction. Granted, physician assisted suicide is a necessity for individuals whose illnesses have rendered them unable to take their own lives. But if we could win broad social acceptance for suicide, just plain suicide, as an option for anyone then the acceptance that suicide should be available to the seriously ill, or that doctors ought to deliver seriously impaired patients who can no longer deliver themselves, would be largely automatic.

By zeroing in on the "easier win" of physician assisted suicide, right-to-die advocates have given up more than they know. Relegating self-deliverance to the pharmacopoeia, making it like some opioid or barbiturate to be doled out by society's medical shamans, means passing up an opportunity to pursue real root-level reform of the way our culture views suicide.

Let's face it: when it comes to suicide, America is deep in the throes of Prohibition. Killing oneself carries enormous social stigma. Life insurance policies pay less or not at all, an idiocy some European countries have done away with. And because we effectively criminalize suicide, individuals determined to end their lives must resort to measures that are needlessly painful or violent, or which endanger others, just to get the job done. Presumably fewer people would jump off tall buildings or drive into bridge abutments if they felt confident that gentler methods would not expose them to interference.

There's another subtler, more corrosive side effect of society's suicide ban. It has led us to tolerate the repression of individual choice on a vast scale. Express serious interest in suicide, and you're likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis of clinical depression. You're more likely to face involuntary commitment to a mental health facility because of so-called "suicidal ideations" than for any other cause. It seems certain that if suicide were easier and less stigmatized, more genuinely depressed persons would kill themselves. But that human cost needs to be weighed against the human cost of today's system that blindly labels, drugs or confines people just because they wish to exercise a fundamental human right.

The suicide debate pits two deeply-held values against each other: the old Christian conception that one's soul belongs to God, hence one cannot simply dispose of oneself as one will; and the Enlightenment virtue of self-determination. Secular humanists shouldn't have to think too hard about which side to be on! If as human beings we own ourselves, if our right to shape our lives is fundamental, then our right to end our lives is fundamental too - not just when we are debilitated and terminally ill, but any time at all. So it's surprising that more voices haven't been raised from the secular humanist camp saying, "Physician assisted suicide is great, but what we really need to do is to legitimize suicide as such."

Our centuries-long "war on suicide" has been destructive in many of the same ways that Prohibition and the War on Drugs have been. It's time to end it. Accomplish that reform and deliverance for the seriously ill - whether they require a physician's help or not - will follow.

What do you think? Write Advocatus Diaboli, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664. If you prefer, fax (716) 636-7571 or email tflynn@centerforinquiry.net. Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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