A famous riddle goes: “What is the only crime that if done, can’t be prosecuted?” The answer is suicide. And, in some places, it is a crime. It’s certainly taboo in modern Western society. This is somewhat of a local development. In many cultures, suicide is seen as an unfortunate, but acceptable end to horrible situation. In some situations it was the expected outcome. But at least in Western culture, suicide has become one of the most contentious social debates of our time.
Most of the debate revolves around medically assisted suicide, doctors helping terminally ill patients who don’t want to continue with treatments or wait for an unpleasant end. On one side, legal euthanasia removes the stigma and allows the genuinely suffering to die in peace. On the other, many are worried that this is a slippery slope and that many who ask for euthanasia are not truly of sound mind. It’s a real problem for the doctors involved. No matter what widespread ethics say, they are taking a serious risk in the name of alleviating someone’s suffering. People have gone to jail for this.
People like Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Starting in 1990, Dr. Kevorkian began offering his services as a counselor to the suicidal. Over the next eight years, Dr. Kevorkian assisted in the suicide of 130 people, most of whom (but not all) were either terminally ill or diagnosed with disorders like Alzheimer’s. He developed two devices, known as the thanatron and mercitron that would automatically deliver lethal doses of either drugs or carbon monoxide gas, but only if the patient willingly activated the machine.
However, Dr. Kevorkian’s practices also came under intense scrutiny. While supporters point out self-published standards of euthanasia procedures, Dr. Kevorkian’s work seemed rough and haphazard to many. The time between meeting patients and assisting in their deaths was sometimes quite short, on the order of a few days. And in a few cases he offered his services to people who were not terminally ill, which seemed to cross an unspoken line. He was ultimately convicted of murder and spent eight years in prison.
In the United States today, legal assistance is available in only three states, Washington, Oregon, and Montana. Switzerland has a similar program, as does the Netherlands. But these only allow for doctors to provide the drugs, not apply them. The person still has to be able to administer it to themselves, preventing many terminally ill patients from using this option.
I’ll leave on this note. Sir Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors, has an amazing hour-long special on the subject. Sir Terry has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and will one day die from it. He’s taken a personal look into the services in Switzerland and has been kind enough to document it for a wider audience. Like the debates in microcosm this is one of the most emotionally complicated movies I’ve ever seen. It’s available in its entirety here on Youtube. No one person is right and none are being unreasonable in this, one of the most difficult questions our society has to answer.
Does a person have a right to die?