Human Exceptionalism

Daniel James Case: “No One Can Judge Son Over Suicide”

The grieving parents of the late Daniel James, who became suicidal after becoming paralyzed from an injury sustained playing rugby, and who committed assisted suicide in Switzerland after being taken there by his parents for that purpose, have said that no one can judge their son. From the story:

“I hope that one day I will get the chance to speak to this lady and ask if she had a son, daughter, father, mother, who could not walk, had no hand function, was incontinent, and relied upon 24-hour care for every basic need and they had asked her for support, what would she have done?!” Mrs James went on to write “nobody but nobody should judge him”

Absolutely. James was lost in the labyrinth of catastrophic despair. He should neither be judged nor condemned.

But that does not mean that we may not discuss this very public matter critically. Statements about having no right to judge are meant to disable our critical thinking capacities and force us into radical terminal nonjudgmentalism. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bullied into silence. This case has become a cause celebre for assisted suicide. Accordingly, we can and should draw conclusions about how those involved in this tragedy behaved. For it isn’t being suicidal that is the problem–none of us can know if we might not one day fall prey to such existential despair–it is how the community reacts to suicidal ideation that is the real issue we must face.

Dignitas, the Swiss suicide facilitating organization, are the worst. These ideologues are paid to assist suicides of people who are dying, who have disabilities, and thanks to a Swiss Supreme Court ruling, will soon be legally able to assist the suicides of the mentally ill. They are utterly culpable morally.

We can also judge the media that is using the case like one big Oprah show, which as she works hard to do every day, aims at short circuiting any moral criticism. Oprahtization is about making people feel good about whatever they do (except smoking tobacco or making moral judgements), and in that unprinciplism (if you will) are sown the seeds of individual and societal destruction.

James’ parents are a more difficult matter. No one can be unmoved by the deep anguish they must have felt in seeing their son in such howling grief–and their sorrow today at his death. But while we certainly cannot judge them–as in saying they are horrible people, clearly they are not–we cannot condone their actions. And we can certainly push back against the insidious message their actions and current statements are sending to people with disabilities and other despairing Jameses and their families. Moreover, it seems fair to ask some questions: Did they seek psychiatric help for him with specialists who deal with the wrenching adjustments sudden paralysis involves? Did they contact disability rights groups who could have had people with similar injuries visit with James to help him understand that life can be very good? Did they know that studies have shown that the levels of depression of people who become paralyzed later in life–five years post injury–become the same levels as those of people who are able bodied?

These questions are important–not to find ammunition to use against the parents–but to bring teh full picture into the public eye in the hope that others in similar situations can benefit.

And this should haunt us: James might well have triumphed out of his injury, given time. We will never know.

But his death is now being used as a cudgel against human exceptionalism and the equality/sanctity of human life. And that must be resisted.