I’ve always believed people should lead their lives as they choose, assuming doing so injures no one else. I also think people should be allowed to die as they choose, with a similar caveat. I am wholly in favor of assisted suicide and gratified to see that we are (oh so slowly) creating legislature allowing people to die when they choose, in comfort and without pain.
Twenty-five years ago, my mother’s death from a particularly virulent form of cancer was hastened at her request by a lethal dose of morphine administered by her physicians. She was within her rights to demand this modern hemlock, and, I know, was grateful for a merciful end. We, her family, grieved and mourned her deeply, but not one of us, whether spouse, children or grandchildren, would have countenanced her further suffering.
My father died three years later, and in his library I found Final Exit, a book on how to commit suicide. My father was suffering from dementia but had long periods of lucidity. Looking back and with the benefit of age, I think it entirely possible that he may have chosen to die by his own hand. Life without his beloved wife, he told me more than once, simply wasn’t worth living.
In Washington, DC, a Death-with-Dignity law survived a Republican onslaught and went into effect in February. The District became the seventh jurisdiction to allow physician-assisted suicide, joining Montana, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and California. Open-minded nations that have successfully separated religion and government have been the first to allow choice. These include Belgium which did so in 2015, Canada in 2014, and, surprisingly for a largely Catholic nation, Colombia in 2015.
I am reflecting on all this because a story in today’s Washington Post pointed out something I’ve always suspected: That pain is not the primary factor in seeking assisted suicide. According to the most recent New England Journal of Medicine, “the reasons patients have for wanting to end their lives had more to do with psychological suffering than physical suffering.” Madeline Li, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, was quoted as saying, “It’s what I call existential distress. [People who choose suicide] are mostly educated and affluent…people used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be… Their quality of life is not what they want.”
It’s a tricky question, of course. A well-loved person who takes his or her own life will affect the lives of others. There will sadness and tears and unanswered questions. There will also be something more important—relief, an end to suffering and pain, a welcome release.
The stricture against ending one’s own life is largely moral and based on Judeo-Christian tenets that state our lives are not really our own; they belong to a higher power, and only that power has the right to make a choice between life and death. A more modern, follow-up reasoning stresses life at any cost. Never lose hope; miracles occur. They do, but often not at the right time and for the right person.
I think for the most part, our sluggishness at allowing people to choose their own destiny is largely nonsense, a blatant attempt to control the one thing that is entirely ours, our own existence.
There’s also a deep hypocrisy here. The laws governing assisted suicide are promulgated by the same people who allow and promote lethal environmental dogmas, fouled oceans, war, and a frightening host of other fatal policies. They don’t seem to mind people dying from those.