Culture

The Corner

Dying of Despair

I began my work against assisted suicide in 1993.

In the intervening years, I have witnessed a very disturbing change. When I began, the emotional zeitgeist of society focused intensely on preventing suicide. Today, in many cases, the emotional oomph (if you will) supports suicide, not in all cases to be sure, but certainly in some.  

There has been a concomitant downgrading of suicide prevention intensity. As I wrote a few years ago, we now have what I call “invisible” suicide prevention campaigns.

I write this because there is a very good article in First Things by UC Irvine psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty that explores the general issue of suicide. He diagnoses the causes of our crisis as coming from a loss of hope, and to some degree, the decline of religious practice (as distinguished from affiliation).

I intend to dig deeper into his article later. But for now, I want to focus on the assisted suicide aspect.

I have long believed that promoting assisted suicide–even if you call it something else, like “death with dignity” or “aid in dying”–sends an enervating message to the suicidal that self-killing is an acceptable answer to suffering and life’s most difficult problems.

Indeed I believe that the elevation of Brittany Maynard to movie star levels of adulation and celebrity–solely because she promoted and committed assisted suicide–was a tremendously destructive and subversive act that could help push people in dark directions.

Kheriaty discusses that question too. From, “Dying of Despair:

The law is a teacher, and American law ­increasingly teaches indifference to life when it runs up against respect for radical autonomy.

California and Colorado recently joined four other states in permitting doctors to assist terminally ill patients to take their own lives. In the same week that Gov. Brown signed the California bill, two British scholars published a study showing that laws permitting assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington have led to a rise in overall suicide rates in those states. 

I wrote about that study here too. Back to Kheriaty:

These findings should not surprise us. We know that publicized cases of suicide tend to produce copycat cases, often disproportionately among young people. Recall the recent spate of adolescent suicides in Silicon Valley. Social scientists call this “the Werther effect,” from Goethe’s eighteenth-century novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist, thwarted in his romantic pursuits, takes his own life with a pistol. After the book’s publication, a rash of suicides among young men using the same means alarmed authorities in Germany…

The case of fourteen-year-old Valentina Maureira, a Chilean girl who suffered from cystic fibrosis, illustrates both effects while highlighting the power of social influences.

Maureira made a YouTube video begging her government to legalize assisted suicide. She admitted that the idea to end her life began after she heard about the case of Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine-year-old woman who campaigned for the legalization of assisted suicide before ending her own life.

Maureira, however, later changed her mind after meeting another young woman suffering from cystic fibrosis who encouraged her to persevere in the face of adversity. Her father complained that the media were only interested in her story when she wanted to die.

If Maureira had killed herself, we never would have known she would, one day, change her mind.

But that fact won’t resonate at all with those who increasingly believe that suicide, at least of the sick, is a right rather than a cultural crisis. They will simply shrug and sniff, “She didn’t do it so what’s the problem?”

But there is a huge problem that could be taking the lives of some who would later want to live. Consider: We now see suicide parties extolled in the media–even joint suicides and euthanasia killings of elderly couples. Movies promote suicide of the sick and elderly.  And one can’t discuss assisted suicide with out seeing the photo of a beautifully smiling Brittany Maynard holding a puppy.

In all of this, I am reminded of a quote from Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne. Writing in the wake of widespread public support for a father who murdered his daughter because she had cerebral palsy, Coyne worried:

A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

We aren’t there yet, but if we aren’t careful, we could become a pro-suicide culture, or at least a suicide-indifferent one.

Indeed, when it comes to the ill, disabled, and elderly, many of us are already there. And the casualties are mounting. 

 

 

 

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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