Assisted Suicide — A Moral Case

Ross Douthat plays fast and loose in his New York Times column today, “Dr. Kervorkian’s Victims.” One moment he says there isn’t a moral case for assisted suicide—just one based on an “impulse toward mercy” – and then he suggests there might be one. But then argues that if we acknowledge such a right to suicide, then what’s to stop anyone from deciding to die, even if they are not suffering from a terminal illness.

Of course, there IS nothing to stop anyone deciding to end their life, and most sensible countries long ago decriminalized attempted suicide – India’s Supreme Court two months ago urged the Indian Parliament to “delete” a law that seeks to punish failed suicides, saying it was anachronistic and lacking in compassion.

But suicide is one thing – the person committing it or attempting to do it — is involved in a self-sufficient action. Assisted suicide is something else: others are being asked to help. And so a case has to be made.

My late mother, Barbara Dettmer, who underwent assisted suicide in Switzerland nearly six years ago, would have scorned Douthat’s arguments against assisted suicide. She would have insisted emphatically that it was up to her to decide when and how to go. She would have said it was a matter of civil liberties, common decency as well as compassion. She would have said her physical suffering had earned her the right to ask for assistance to end her life.

She chose assisted suicide after struggling for more than three decades very bravely with crucifying pain. Her multiple, progressive and incurable diseases were not helped by palliative care and her quality of life had been reduced to an appalling existence. Her body was wrecked. She was not terminal but chose to be. Modern medicine has shifted many out of the terminal category and they linger in the incurable one, condemned to a life of suffering prolonged. Some would call it torture.

The Swiss organization, Dignatas, who Douthat sneers at, allowed her to regain her dignity. My mother’s last moments were peaceful – two very sympathetic nurses were in attendance. She had no doubts about what she was doing. My family and I supported her “right” to die because she asked us to and because we accepted the civil liberties case for assisted suicide while also sharing at the same time an “impulse toward mercy.” None of us have had any time, by the way, for the rather suspicious Jack Kervorkian, who is the main target of the Douthat’s NYT column.

Douthat worries that there is too much arbitrariness in deciding who should have the right to undergo assisted suicide and predictably he talks about slippery slopes. But many of the biggest human dilemmas can’t be subject intelligently to a black-and-white mindset. When it comes to assisted suicide it must come down to a matter of individual choice. And we should be humble when someone decides that they want to go through assisted suicide, however painful it is for us.

Obviously, there need to be practical checks and balances and the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, outlined a couple of years ago some fine guidelines for when his department would not seek a prosecution against those assisting others to commit suicide. The emphasis and focus of the guidelines were spot-on and seek to protect the vulnerable from manipulation, coercion and trickery. Factors against prosecution include: the expression of a clear, settled and informed wish by the person electing suicide, who has to be terminally ill or suffering from a severe and incurable disability and degenerative condition.

See Assisted Suicide category for other posts on this subject.