New Year’s Day is not always a time for new beginnings: Brittany Maynard found out on the first day of this year that she had incurable brain cancer, and she had herself put to death last Saturday, a few weeks before her 30th birthday. She did this after having moved from California to Oregon, which legally permits assisted suicide, for that very purpose. She did so with the support of her husband and her family. “There isn’t a single person that loves me that wishes me more pain and more suffering,” she said. One hopes that there wasn’t a single person, loving her or not, who wished her any pain and suffering, much less further pain and suffering.
The issue of assisted suicide, and suicide generally, brings up an ancient question: Is life a ledger, or is it something else? If one takes the view of the classical Epicureans, or the bastardized version of their philosophy embraced by vulgar modern hedonists, then life is indeed a balance sheet: so much pleasure and tranquility balanced against so much pain and terror. Given a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, it would take something seemingly more than merely human to judge such pleasures as remain, even the company of loved ones, sufficient to offset the descent into the inner darkness that awaits. No one who understands what that kind of death means could ever accuse someone who chose instead a painless exit of being guilty of cowardice, or of having taken “the easy way out,” as the cliché has it. The terror of death is a constant, but that terror is overwhelmed by a far greater terror. Even the Catholic Church, hardly a milquetoast institution on the question of suicide, acknowledges: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
Neither the ancient Roman nor the Edo-period Japanese culture could be said to have taken an indulgent view of cowardice, but both countenanced suicide.
The so-called social issues really ought not to be lumped together; assisted suicide is a very different thing from gay marriage or abortion. For the latter two issues, it is not difficult to construct arguments for the conservative position on purely secular grounds, i.e., that relationships of the kind that naturally produce offspring are different from those of the kind that do not, regardless of whether they produce offspring in fact; that what we mean by “people” is individual, living, human organisms, and one cannot kill people without a powerful reason. It is difficult to think of an equally convincing and purely secular argument against suicide or assisted suicide. That some people might seek assistance in ending their lives for reasons that are trivial or ephemeral is not an argument for banning assisted suicide, but an argument for carefully regulating it.
One may believe, as I believe, that life is a gift, and that the gift entails the fullness of the human experience, including suffering and death. But a gift implies a Giver. The Catholic Catechism, which tends to be reasonably rigorous, is uncharacteristically desultory on the question of non-Divine arguments against suicide: that it “offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations.” But it is rarely the case that sick people choose suicide to avoid obligations; more often, it is the opposite, that they do not wish to become burdens on others. And a nation that provides no legal protection for the lives of the innocent unborn can hardly make a claim of obligation upon the lives of the suffering sick.
To outlaw suicide itself is of course futile — one must wonder what sort of sentence would be handed down upon repeat offenders. And if we accept that one may as a matter of law — if not as a matter of morality — take one’s own life, are we not obliged by humaneness and mercy also to allow such assistance as would avoid unnecessary suffering?
I do not think that we necessarily are.
“You cannot legislate morality” is the most beef-witted and vacuous cliché in American public life — as though we had laws against murder and rape because such crimes reduce GDP. Every legal question is fundamentally a moral question, because even the most picayune legal requirement is in the end secured by the armed violence of the state, from Murder One to driving 57 mph in a 55 mph zone. (That is the condensed case for libertarianism.) But not every moral question is a necessarily legal question. The religious traditionalist may believe that homosexual relations are immoral without also believing that government regulation of them is desirable or wise. One may believe that allowing the mentally ill to founder in the streets is immoral — and it is — without believing that the sin should be redressed through additional expropriation and the further inflation of the ever-swelling welfare Leviathan. The scope of politics is limited both by our admittedly diminished sense of the autonomy of persons and families and by practical considerations: How many Happy Meals a month justifies federal intervention into the dietary habits of the Smith family?
If you were to ask me to distill logically from agreed-upon precepts a case against suicide, I suspect that I would fail — that I would be reduced to arguing that we mustn’t because we mustn’t, that we should act on Marcus Aurelius’s advice that life is more like wrestling than dancing.
There is a story about a man who finds himself stranded on a remote foreign shore and in his wanderings comes upon a gallows, at the sight of which he weeps with joy, understanding it as a sign of justice, the rule of law, the protection of life. James Fenimore Cooper called the gallows a “pledge of civilization.” And perhaps it is, though it is difficult to encounter the antiseptic modern apparatus of penitential death without feeling that our national virtues are possibly as much diminished by it as confirmed.
Assisted suicide, too, creates a machinery of death — legal, political, pharmaceutical, etc. Oregon’s so-called Death with Dignity Act provides for allowing terminally ill patients to “end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.” So a doctor must write that prescription; presumably, it must be filled somewhere. I wonder if Rite Aid or CVS fills prescriptions for lethal doses of pentobarbital, the more common suicide drug in Oregon (secobarbital is a distant second), which is also used to put down sick animals and death-row inmates. Surely there must be a different sort of dispensary — the thought of picking up a few greeting cards, a candy bar, or a pack of cigarettes along with your suicide kit is too horrible to contemplate. In any case, the apparatus of death must necessarily grow around medicine and commerce like a creeping vine.
The argument for suicide usually is an argument from privacy. That certainly was Brittany Maynard’s case: “My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?” Who, indeed? But that is not really the question presented by assisted suicide. The question in that case is whether the law should bless the participation of medicine and commerce in suicide. On the one hand, we might have a society in which suffering innocents such as Brittany Maynard are forced to rely upon less clinical means of ending their lives. On the other hand, we might have a society in which there are nice, clean factories employing cheerful, well-scrubbed people manufacturing suicide pills. It is a question of a balance of horrors, and, however deeply felt our sympathies for the suffering must be, it is not obvious that the latter is preferable to the former.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.