No Such Thing As Assisted Suicide

Since this article first appeared, advocates of “doctor-assisted suicide” have changed their terminology to “compassionate choices in death” and “aid in dying.”

by Jane St. Clair

Author of Walk Me to Midnight

Suicide is, by definition, an act you perform by yourself. Therefore, there is no such thing as doctor-assisted suicide.

If you ask a friend, family member or doctor to help you commit suicide, you immediately change the definition of suicide from a solitary act with implications for you only as an individual to an act that involves other people and society. It is no longer suicide. Now it is a conspiracy to commit homicide. Once you involve others in killing any human being, it becomes homicide.

Some would argue that each person has the right to end his or her life in the way and hour of choice. However, even the United States Supreme Court can find no such right. Our laws have traditionally considered suicide the murder of a human being. It is against the law to help murder anyone, even someone who wants to die.

While you may not have any legal right to commit suicide, you already have the power to end your own life. The power to do something is different from right to do it. For example, you have the power to use drugs, but not the legal right to use heroin.

Some people make the argument that if you provide the means for a suicide but you are not present at the death, it is still a suicide.  Again, this argument defies common sense and the law. Legally, any doctor who writes out a prescription that he knows will be used for a suicide legally becomes an “accessory before the fact of homicide.” What this means is that the doctor is knowingly participating in a homicide because his actions will result in the death of another person. The same is true of a gun dealer who sells a pistol to someone he knows is about to commit suicide. The gun dealer is an accessory before the fact of homicide.  The people who helped Timothy McVeigh blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma were accessories before the fact. They are criminals under our legal system even though they did not actually plant any bombs or fire any guns.

The vast majority of terminally ill people have ample time and means to end their lives long before they become too incapacitated to need assistance from a doctor or anyone else. There are all kinds of internet websites and books in the public library about how to do it painlessly. Proponents of doctor-assisted suicide know this, which is why they constantly point to a tiny minority of terminally ill people who are too sick to end their lives themselves. These people are most often within days of a natural death, and they have the right to refuse treatment and stop taking medicine at any time.

By the way, physician-assisted suicide laws never apply people too handicapped to commit suicide,  such as Christopher Reeve or Terri Schiavo. These laws apply only to the terminally ill.

By writing laws that make it okay for doctors help patients kill themselves, you are giving physicians a power no sensible doctor would want. Doctors are just human beings like the rest of us. They may have knowledge of medical processes, but they have no greater understanding of death than anyone else. Most physicians know that their participation in life-ending decisions as authority figures changes the process. What should always be a private and tragic act of despair — suicide– becomes one sanctioned by a respected authority figure.  If a doctor says to a patient, “Look, it’s all over for you. I can help you die right now,” he is not speaking as a doctor. He has compromised the patient/doctor relationship into something that is no longer about caring and healing.

Once  such laws are in place, a physician can no longer tell a patient, “Where there’s life, there’s hope. We can try a new treatment. Miracles happen,” even though every doctor knows this to be true. Any hospice nurse can describe a case in which his patient  had a few weeks to live but instead lasted for years. No one can write laws that includes miracles and hope.

Assisted suicide laws cannot adequately address the question of whether suicidal ideation, even among the terminally ill,  is a matter of clinical depression, which can be treated with drugs and psychotherapy. By asking for help in suicide, a depressed person may really be asking for help with his despair and fears of becoming incapacitated. If she wanted to commit suicide, she would have already found a way herself.

Sometimes when we watch a person in his last hours, we wonder if it would not be a kindness to end that life more quickly. We tell ourselves that we would not want to be that person. We delude ourselves into thinking that euthanasia is compassion, not killing. And then we do a form of doublethink to justify ourselves by saying we are not doing a mercy killing, we are assisting a suicide.

Any new law is not just about individual cases and individual rights.  It is about us as a society.  We must measure the new law’s benefit to the individual against its effect on society. We have to look at the implications of having such a public policy in place. We have to think through what it would mean to young people, who already end their lives by the thousands each year, to live in a place where adults sanction suicide as a “right”. We have to look at the implications for doctors, whose work and sacred oath is about healing disease and promoting life, not ending it. We have to picture our country as a place where we do not protect and care for our terminally ill, but instead ask them to hurry things up so we can avoid looking at mortality.  Doctor-assisted suicide is not just about dying people.  It is also about how it defines the rest of us,  how it defines us as a society.

Proponents of physician-assisted suicide sell it as a new right and a hip thing to do, but it’s nothing new. Other societies that have had policies of actively killing the terminally ill. We note how these policies gradually came to include other classes of people: deformed babies, physically handicapped, mentally retarded, insane, and those with objectionable skin colors or religions or lifestyles. The Romans and the Nazis did this, and their worlds collapsed. There is no reason to believe we are any nobler and wiser than those who came before us, or that our society would end any differently.