Assisted suicide is not about autonomy. It's a tragedy that we shouldn't allow.
David Goodall, an Australian scientist, recently killed himself in Switzerland under that country’s assisted suicide law. Goodall, who was 104 years old and was, in his advanced age, miserable, self-injected himself with a lethal dose of drugs; all he had to do, according to TheWashington Post, was “turn a wheel to let the lethal drugs to flow into his bloodstream.” And then he was dead.
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played as he died. His path to suicide was aided by Exit International, an organization that helps people kill themselves.
Assisted suicide is becoming more popular throughout the developed world. The New Zealand Parliament is currently debating its legalization. A legalization proposal in Guernsey in the United Kingdom was recently voted down, but in nearby Jersey a majority of politicians up for election support legalization. Assisted suicide and in some cases outright euthanasia are legal in a number of Western European countries: Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands. In America, meanwhile, assisted suicide is legal in several states and the District of Columbia.
This is a tragedy.
In part the tragedy is a practical one: As suicide becomes increasingly mainstream and accepted, even celebrated, the number of people doing it will certainly rise, and the boundaries of its application will expand. There is troubling evidence that, where it has been legalized, the number of suicides has risen for people with no terminal illness. In the Netherlands over a period of several years, according to one survey, there was a sharp increase in people killing themselves due to psychiatric distress, namely depression and loneliness.
This should not be surprising. Normalizing something as fraught and as fatally beguiling as suicide will very likely lead more people to commit it. The depressed person who might not have felt brave enough to shoot himself in the head, or cut his wrists, or jump off a bridge, may feel drawn to the clean, orderly, well-lit alternative of lethal self-injection.
Mental illness, which often narrows one’s foresight to the most nearsighted of proportions, is a great predictor of increased suicide rates; so is legalized suicide. Combining the two is a societal recipe for disaster, at least if the society in question believes in helping people heal rather than helping them die.
The skeptic might ask: Why object to legalized suicide, particularly where terminally ill patients are concerned? If people want to take their own lives, why should anyone feel entitled to stand in the way?
The answer is twofold. For one, we should not as a rule grant doctors the prerogative to help kill their patients. The whole history of medicine has been one of improved healing or, in terminal cases, reduced suffering; euthanasia, which devalues life to the point of liquidation, is the precise opposite of good and responsible medical care. To legalize suicide in this way is to weaponize the medical system against the very people to which it should be most attentive.
On a deeper, more substantive level, legalized suicide strikes at the heart of one of the most indispensible ideas in human history: That every human life is precious beyond reckoning and worthy of both honor and protection. Killing someone, even someone who is already dying, directly controverts this principle; you cannot inject people with fatal doses of barbiturates without declaring, however implicitly, that their lives are worth less than an artificial minimum standard.
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Those who advocate for legalized suicide see it as a matter of radical autonomy: We should leave it up to each individual to determine the worth of his own life, up to and including an act of suicide. But this is simply an evasive, almost cowardly instance of passing the buck. If you are actively or even passively complicit in an act of euthanasia, you cannot say you do not, in some way, agree with the suicidal person's assertion that his life is a waste and that he is better off dead.
It is philosophically unavoidable.
Rather than kill ourselves when life gets lonely, frightening or painful, we might assume as a matter of course that things can get better, that there are people who can help us, that this, too, shall pass. Terminally ill people in particular have a precious gift to give their family and friends: There are few more self-emptying and comprehensive acts of love than caring for a dying loved one — an opportunity that is taken from anyone who has watched a loved one kill himself.
Doubtlessly euthanasia and assisted suicide will continue to be popularized and legalized. But we should resist this relentless march of sanitized, celebrated death. A civilized culture does not kill the weakest, sickest and most vulnerable of its people; we are better than this, even if Switzerland is not.