Human Exceptionalism

More “Right to Suicide” Advocacy

The momentum is growing in some quarters advocating for what is often called “rational suicide.” One of the first articles I saw about “rational suicide” was written some nine years ago by a former Hemlock Society activist and psychologist named James Werth, in the mental health journal Crisis (Vo. 19. No. 4, 1998), “Using Rational Suicide as a Means of Preventing Irrational Suicide.” (Werth asked me to write a chapter in his book about rational suicide. For those interested, here it is: “‘Rational Suicide’ as the New Jim Crow.”) Most recently, as we discussed here at SHS, Jacob Appel urged legalization of assisted suicide for the mentally ill in the prestigious Hastings Center Report.

This advocacy is now slipping beyond popularly obscure mental health and bioethics journals and into the general press. Example: A pundit named Emer O’Kelly, who writes for the Independent (Dublin) has written a piece urging a “right to suicide.” It makes for depressing reading. To make suicide seemingly more legitimate, O’Kelly first attempts to claim that refusing unwanted life support is suicide. He then trots out the old shoe that permitting some suicides will prevent youth suicides. But in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal for the terminally ill, youth suicide has increased. And he boosts suicide too:

Personally, I think suicide is courageous rather than cowardly, even when it is undertaken as a means of avoiding the shameful consequences of dishonourable actions…But when people have wisdom, courage, and endurance and have reached the point of no return, with physical deterioration, pain, or mental and emotional despair, we have absolutely no collective right to deny the right to suicide. In such circumstances it becomes the ultimate civil and human right.

Advocacy for a right to suicide with those O’Kelly denigrates as having a “life not worth living,” will not save lives–not even those O’Kelly deems worth saving. It will merely turn suicide into another “choice,” and the cost will be considerable.

The Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne summarized society’s growing flirtation with euthanasia and suicide quite succinctly some years ago in an article decrying the public support for Robert Latimer, who “mercy” killed his disabled daughter Tracy. Coyne warned:

What begins in relativism ends in nihilism. 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.

Will we embrace the values of O’Kelly or Coyne? The choice is ours. So too, will be the consequences of our decision.