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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.
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