The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Washington Post Boosts Elderly ‘Rational Suicide’

The Washington Post Company building in Washington, D.C., 2012 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The media abandoned unequivocal opposition to suicide long ago. Most publications editorially support legalizing assisted suicide, and the news sides — such as the New York Times and the Associated Press — have even gone so far as to run stories lauding suicide/euthanasia parties, at which people celebrate the life of the host just before their death by overdose or lethal injection. PARTAY! Friends and family were so supportive, don’t you know!

Now, the Washington Post moves the ball another few yards downfield in a story from Kaiser Health News that furthers the normalization of rational suicide for the elderly by treating it as a respectable topic of discussion–rather than lamenting suicidal desires by oldsters as a serious mental health problem requiring unequivocal prevention efforts by a loving community. From, As Seniors Go into Twilight Years, Some of them Privately Mull Rational Suicide:

New Jersey recently became the eighth state to allow medical aid in dying, which permits some patients to get a doctor’s prescription for lethal drugs. That method is restricted, however, to people with a terminal condition who are mentally competent and expected to die within six months.

Patients who aren’t eligible for those laws would have to go to an “underground practice” to get lethal medication, said Timothy Quill, a palliative care physician at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. Quill became famous in the 1990s for publicly admitting that he gave a 45-year-old patient with leukemia sleeping pills so she could end her life. He said he has done so with only one other patient.

Quill said he considers suicide one option he may choose as he ages: “I would probably be a classic [case] — I’m used to being in charge of my life.” He said he might be able to adapt to a situation in which he became entirely dependent on the care of others, “but I’d like to be able to make that be a choice as opposed to a necessity.”

Quill is deemed a hero in assisted-suicide circles. He’s apparently now expanding his advocacy to include people who are not terminally ill who want to commit rational suicide. And why not? Once we accept assisted suicide for the terminally ill, why not others who want to escape current or feared future suffering? Shouldn’t they also have the right to die in the time and manner of their own choosing?

In fact, this story reminds me very much of the pieces ubiquitously published about assisted suicide in the 1990s, which would present quotes from opponents (often, yours truly), but focused the emotional heart of the narrative on people who just wanted to die on their own terms and the compassionate doctors who wanted to help them, but couldn’t because of the cruel laws. Indeed, the the emotional heart of this story is on seniors who want to kill themselves before falling ill or becoming debilitated:

To Lois, the 86-year-old-woman who organized the [suicide discussion] meeting outside Philadelphia, suicides by older Americans are not all tragedies. A widow with no children, Lois said she would rather end her own life than deteriorate slowly over seven years, as her mother did after she broke a hip at age 90. (Lois asked to be referred to by only her middle name so she would not be identified, given the sensitive topic.)…

Carolyn, a 72-year-old member of the group who also asked that her last name be withheld, said they live in a “fabulous place” where residents enjoy “a lot of agency.” But she and her 88-year-old husband also want the freedom to determine how they die.

A retired nurse, Carolyn said her views have been shaped in part by her experience with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the 1990s, she created a program that sent hospice volunteers to work with people dying of AIDS, which at the time was a death sentence.

She said many of the men kept a stockpile of lethal drugs on a dresser or bedside table. They would tell her, “When I’m ready, that’s what I’m going to do.” But as their condition grew worse, she said, they became too confused to follow through.

“I just saw so many people who were planning to have that quiet, peaceful ending when it came, and it just never came. The pills just got scattered. They lost the moment” when they had the wherewithal to end their own lives, she said.

See what I mean? A story written like this about, say, teen suicide, would evoke outrage.

And here’s a bitter irony: After helping normalize the idea of elder suicide as empowering, the story ends with the phone number of a suicide prevention hotline. That’s just a sop after potentially putting lethal ideas into readers’ heads.

If you doubt me, catch this bit:

Carolyn said when she and her neighbors met at the cafe, she felt comforted by breaking the taboo.

Yes, by all means, we must break taboos,” as if that’s all opposition to suicide is about.

We are becoming a pro-suicide culture. I predict that in five or ten years, stories about rational suicide for the elderly won’t present any opposition voices at all.

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