I suppose it’s old news now, but back in the 1990s, assisted suicide was all the rage. “Dr. Death,” more politely known as Jack Kevorkian, served over eight years in prison for an assisted suicide. The problem was that unlike other cases, the patient was unable to “pull the trigger” himself. So it was a homicide.
Legal details aside, there’s still a nagging moral question at the bottom of this issue. “Murder” is just a scary word we use to avoid asking the tougher questions. (Remember, in the vast majority of these cases, the “victim” initiates the lethal agent.) Murder and death and killing are not the same things, and we shouldn’t go throwing the words about willy-nilly.
We as a nation are perfectly happy killing people and thinking ourselves morally good. We especially like movies where the bad guys get their just desserts. We support the death penalty for certain kinds of murderers. Much more important than that, we start wars, sacrificing innocent civilians in the process, for the express goal of fitting select dictators with thick twine neckware. There are instances where we are ok with “innocent people” dying.
As far as I can tell, the assisted death debate hinges on that very premise — that all life is sacred, and innocent life must not be taken for any reason. It’s certainly a premise rooted in religion. Christian values tell us that our bodies are temples, and we must not defile them. We must not drink alcohol, take drugs, have sex, or otherwise spoil our inherent purity. (If this doesn’t ring of Old Testament law, then you haven’t read your Bible carefully enough.)
There’s also the religious notion that suicide is a mortal sin, for which the punishment is eternal damnation. And anyone who helps with such a dastardly deed must be as horrible as the person committing the sin. But like the temple argument, this one falls by the wayside if there is no religious justification for it.
But it’s more than a religious issue. Many non-religious Americans are opposed to assisted suicide. For them, the logic is a little fuzzier, since they can’t appeal to Jesus for justification, but the emotions are still strong. It’s wrong for someone to die before their time.
The more secular arguments are shaky at best. Issues with life insurance, car payments and such can be worked out by the legal system. Clauses addressing suicide are already part of the system, and whether or not the act was assisted seems irrelevant.
The “slippery slope” argument is a red herring. Every time we allow or restrict an action, we are on the verge of a slippery slope. If we withheld legislation on everything which could lead to more draconian rules, we’d never make anything legal or illegal. Allowing an individual to decide their own fate is about as far away from enforced “death panels” or euthanasia programs as optional 401Ks are from communism.
In the end, we seem to be left with an emotional sinkhole, but no rational objections. And while the emotional objections are probably not entirely inspired by religious beliefs, it would be naive to think that the cultural impetus of the “pure body” meme doesn’t have a strong influence on believers and non-believers alike. The emotional pull is, I believe, the final argument. That is, suicides are painful to surviving loved ones, and the idea of them being assisted is even more painful to many. Harsh feelings towards the assistant abound, and many people view them as morally offensive people.
To which, the proper legal response is… So what?
We have no “right” in America to not be offended. We have no right to demand that others take our religious mores seriously, or to legislate them. To those of us wishing to live “Life Without a Net” — that is, intentionally remove the pull of religion from as many decisions as possible — we are left with a glaring question. Why does anyone care whether a suicide is assisted or not? To be consistent, we must admit that if a person has the right to live her life the way she desires, she also has the right to end it the same way. For us outspoken critics of religion, we must apply our rule to ourselves. If we have the right to offend the religious and their practices, then we also have the right to offend those who are emotionally hurt by suicide and assisted suicide. If we cannot come up with a legitimate, tangible harm to ourselves — beyond our hurt feelings — we cannot in good conscience prohibit another from taking their own life.
- Final Exit: Compassion or Assisted Suicide? (time.com)
- No charges in 20 assisted-suicide cases as public prosecutor accused of rewriting law (dailymail.co.uk)
- Why I write about religion (choiceindying.com)