Monday, July 01, 2002

To be, or not to be: Should suicide be legal? Is it ethical? Is it moral?

As Shakespeare once said "that is the question". This has her answer:

Ms Williamson, who has been planning her death since she was diagnosed with the disease on September 11 last year, said she was weak, could not sit up and had "tubes coming out of every orifice".

"It's a disease that usually kills the sufferer within 14 months so it's a very rapid disease and there really is no hope for anyone at this point.

"Can you just imagine not being able to move at all, not being able to speak, not being able to swallow, being on ventilators, you'd just be a living corpse," she said.

"The whole point of doing this and going public is that a little commonsense is brought into the business of dying."

Should suicide be legal? Is it ethical? Is it moral?

I read a speculative fiction story a long time ago, about a man who was infected with the DNA of an assassinated politician. The infection took over his body, until he became the reincarnation of the politician. The politician chastised his followers, who had introduced the infection in the victim, telling them that they had violated the rights of the man they had, in essence murdered, to bring about his return. He poisoned himself, in an attempt to balance the scales, but also because, as he told one confidant, death was more pleasurable than life. "Why else," he said, "would there be such strong religious prohibitions against it?"

I think of this story whenever I think about euthanasia. If death is potentially so wonderful, why do we dread it so much? And why do we revile those who have lost that dread?

The woman in this article has made a clearly rational decision. Clearly her life is at an end; why prolong it with a few additional weeks of intense suffering? It seems so clear, and yet there is an immediate, visceral reaction to the idea, even among those who favor euthanasia. Is this gut reaction instinctive, the reaction of an affront to our own will to survive, or is it cultural, bred into us through generations of religious indoctrination?

My own, completely unscientific opinion is that most folks who are considering suicide are mentally ill, and should be given treatment. Those few that are of sound mind, however, can do whatever they want to. The desire to end one's life is not automatically a sign of insanity. If a person who wishes to kill themselves can demonstrate sanity, then society has no right to interfer with his choices, however repugnant they may find them. On the other hand, suicidal tendencies which result from insanity should be restrained, until sanity is restored.