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Suicide advocacy goes online.


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Wesley J. Smith

It was bound to happen. First, proponents of the culture of death brought us physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Now, we must contend with IAS — Internet-assisted suicide. Yes, you read right. As reported by Julia Scheeres in the June 8 San Francisco Chronicle, suicide promotion and facilitation has entered cyberspace. In “A Virtual Path to Suicide,” Scheeres demonstrates how indifferent to the value of human life certain segments of our society have grown, and how callous they are when faced with a despairing person wishing to commit suicide. First, they bestow moral permission. Then, they teach the self-destructive person how to do it. Finally, they keep the suicidal person company until the deed is done. It is the modern version of the howling crowd yelling, “Jump! Jump!” at the suicidal person standing on the skyscraper window ledge.

This is what happened to 19-year-old Suzy Gonzales. Despite having a full scholarship at Florida State University and a loving family, Gonzales wanted to kill herself. Her suicide was set in motion when she found an Internet site whose participants “view suicide as a civil right that anyone should be able to exercise, for any reason.” On the site, Scheeres reports, “Gonzales found people who told her that suicide was an acceptable way to end her despair, and who gave her instructions on how to obtain a lethal dose of potassium cyanide and mix it into a deadly cocktail.”

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If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The Hemlock Society — the nation’s largest assisted-suicide advocacy group, has promoted the idea of suicide as the “ultimate civil right” for years. And, just like the denizens of the Internet site taught Gonzales how to kill herself, Hemlock publications have long instructed readers how-to-commit suicide while its conventions regularly feature guest speakers who bring their newly invented suicide machines for conventioneers to ooh and ah over. Hemlock’s current favored method of “deliverance” is the use of helium and a plastic bag.

Hemlock doesn’t limit its work to “education.” It also has the “Caring Friends” program of trained volunteers who not only teach suicidal members with severe illnesses or injuries differing methods for a painless “deliverance” but who walk the extra mile by agreeing to be present when the deed is done. Call suicide prevention? Perish the thought! Ensure proper psychiatric treatment? Forget about it! Initiate interventions to help talk the suicidal person out of it? Are you kidding?

“This is an outrageous comparison!” Hemlockers will undoubtedly protest angrily. “Yes, we give people moral permission to kill themselves. Yes, we teach them how to do it. Yes, Caring Friends will counsel suicidal Hemlock members and be present for their ‘deliverances.’ This is, after all, our overriding raison d’ etre. But we only help with self-termination for dying people or those with hopeless illnesses; not troubled teenagers!”

True. But Hemlock and its fellow travelers cannot cleanse themselves of moral responsibility for our emerging suicide subculture quite so easily. First, there is no moral difference in enabling the suicides of ill and disabled persons versus other despairing persons who want to die for reasons such as divorce, business collapse, death of children, or simply a desire to be dead. Indeed, studies indicate that the terminally ill who seek suicide are clinically depressed in approximately the same percentages as other categories of suicidal people. Moreover, clinical depression is often treatable — whether or not the suicidal person is physically ill

Besides, Hemlock’s claim that it “only” wants suicide to be available to the terminally or hopelessly ill is belied by the organization’s enthusiastic support for an Australian suicide doctor named Philip Nitschke. Hemlock has paid Nitschke tens of thousands of dollars to invent a suicide concoction made out of common household ingredients called the “peaceful pill.” And it has done so with full knowledge that Nitschke does not foresee access to his suicide formula being limited to sick or dying people.

In a candid interview with NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez, Nitschke asserted that the peaceful pill should be available to “anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, [and] the troubled teen.” Moreover, he believes that suicide poison should be as easy to obtain as a bottle of aspirin. “The so-called peaceful pill should be available in the supermarkets,” he told NRO, “so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing.” In other words, the ideology of Hemlock’s super hero coincides exactly with the views of the people who participated in Suzy Gonzales’s Internet-assisted suicide.

As macabre and bizarre as this is, Hemlock may be the least of our long-term worries when it comes to suicide promotion. Support for allowing “rational suicide” has now entered the mental health professions, the one group who we should be able to count on to protect, without exception, the lives of all suicidal patients.

One of the foremost promoters of rational suicide is James L. Werth Jr., Ph.D. a former member of the Nebraska Hemlock Society board of directors, currently an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Akron, in Ohio.

According to Werth, if a patient expresses suicidal desires, the mental health professional’s duty is to nonjudgmentally help the patient use proper decision-making techniques about whether “to suicide.” (Werth uses the term as a verb.) If self-killing would not be impulsive and were based on substantive reasons, it could be deemed by the mental health professional as “rational.” If the mental health professional also judged the decision-making process to have been appropriately conducted, and the total consequences of the proposed suicide appropriately considered (such as the impact on family), under a rational suicide regimen, the mental health professional could then “permit” the patient’s self-destruction.

To see how far and how fast suicide advocacy can take a society down the slippery slope, consider the experience of the Netherlands, which has permitted euthanasia for more than 30 years, a practice that has now spread to people who are not physically ill. The Dutch supreme court has given its approval to a psychiatrist assisting the suicide of a physically healthy woman who had long wanted to kill herself because her two children had died. In another case reported in a Dutch government-funded documentary, a young woman in remission from anorexia asked her doctor to euthanize her because she was terrified of returning to food abuse. The doctor helped her to die and suffered no legal or professional sanctions of any kind. Last year, the minister of health opined that elderly people who do not qualify for euthanasia under the law but who are “tired of life” should have access to suicide pills.

There are important lessons to be learned from all of this. Advocacy for the legitimacy of suicide as a proper answer to some forms of human suffering sends a powerful and deadly message to the ears of suffering people not originally intended by suicide advocates to qualify for society-sanctioned self-termination. Indeed, once this Pandora’s box is opened, where does it end? If we accept the facilitation of a terminal cancer patient’s suicide, why not also help kill a person paralyzed for life in an auto accident whose suffering could last far longer? And if the suicides of paralyzed people are shrugged off as “rational,” why not also allow it for those who have experienced non-injury or illness life-shattering personal tragedies? And from there…?

It doesn’t take a Sigmund Freud to know that the existential agony of youth can seem as severe to them as the suffering of any cancer patient or accident victim. Moreover, young people, especially those who are depressed, are not known for nuanced thinking. Why, they may ask themselves, should my suffering be off limits to the remedy of suicide, when other suffering people are allowed to free themselves in the name of “rationality” or “choice?” As Scheeres’s article makes disturbingly clear, this deadly dot-connecting process may have already begun — made all the more dangerous by the lurking nihilists waiting to be of suicide service in the anonymity of cyberspace.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. A revised and updated edition of his Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder is due out later this month from Spence Publishing.



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