Human Exceptionalism

Compassion and Choices In No Place to Judge Online Suicide Assistance

There is an awful story about a suicide obsessed man named William F. Melchert-Dinkel, who allegedly helped counsel and teach the suicidal–including a Canadian college girl–to do the deed over the Internet.  He has been criminally charged with assisting suicide in two cases. From the story:

Mr. Melchert-Dinkel, whose lawyer declined an interview request on his behalf, told investigators that his interest in “death and suicide could be considered an obsession,” court documents say, and that he sought the “thrill of the chase.” While the charges stem from two deaths — one in Britain in 2005 and one in Canada in 2008 — Mr. Melchert-Dinkel, who was indeed a licensed practical nurse, told investigators that he had most likely encouraged dozens of people to kill themselves, court documents said. He said he could not be sure how many had succeeded.

Naturally, the Times called Barbara Coombs Lee who tried to differentiate these two assisted suicides from the hundreds for which she and her organization bear moral responsibility:

Barbara Coombs Lee, the president of Compassion and Choices, who has advocated for laws like the one in Oregon, said she found it “perfectly appropriate” that Mr. Melchert-Dinkel faces such charges. “This is so egregious, so clearly wrong, that I’ll be very disappointed if assisted-suicide statutes do not reach this,” she said. “There is a bright line between aid in dying and assisting in suicide like this.”

Hogwash.  Here’s why:

  • By acting under color of law, C & C’s participation in assisted suicides validate their moral propriety.  The law often teaches us right from wrong. In this case, the law–for which C & C is bears prime responsibility– teaches society that killing oneself in the face of terminal illness (and it won’t be limited to that, in the long run), is right and good.
  • By using the euphemism “aid in dying,” C & C works to make some suicides socially respectable–and hence, more likely to occur.
  • Because people working with C &C (or otherwise) believe such suicides are right and proper, suicidal terminally ill people may be denied the kind of suicide prevention and other interventions other suicidal people receive.
  • Many of the assisted suicides with which C  & C is involved interfere with proper medical treatment, specifically hospice care, one service of which is preventing suicides by aggressive multi-disciplinary interventions.  This is no different than denying these patients pain control or some other vital services provided by hospice.
  • Since doctors do the assisting–many of whom, referred by C & C barely know the patients they help kill, a la` Kevorkian–the authority of and respect for physicians are brought to bear in furtherance of suicide.
  • Physicians openly assisting suicide under color of law corrupts medicine and undermines its healing virtues.
  • With a doctor’s and/or family’s agreement to suicide, the patient’s worst fears about themselves–that they are not as lovable as they once were, that they are a burden, that they will be allowed to die in agony, etc.–are validated.
  • It is true that C & C does not involve itself in teenage or youth suicides, which really tug at our hearts-although Derek Humphry’s book Final Exit has been found next to youth suicide victims.  Still, that does not relieve C & C of moral responsibility for helping establish the societal context in which some come to see suicide as an acceptable answer, surely a factor in some of these tragedies.
  • Melchert-Dinkel did a horrible thing by condoning and helping teach people he did not know how to commit suicide. But Barbara Coombs Lee is the last person who should be looking down her nose.

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