On Assisted Suicide

In a previous post on physician-assisted suicide, I had the following exchange with a commenter named Van:


I take it you are are against assisted-suicide?

Let me ask you this – how can we say we live in a free nation if we cannot do what we wish to our own bodies, as long as we do not impact the life, liberty and safety of others?

I have mixed feelings on the subject, but I really have a hard time with others telling me what to do with my body.

Dr. Bob:

Yes, very much against it.

You are, of course, perfectly free to end your own life, with or without such legislation. A handgun and a single bullet will do the job very nicely — along with a hundred other ways.

The problem with this public policy is that you are asking your physician to kill you — and therefore it is no longer just about “what you do with your body”, but very much involves other people — the doctor, the families, and society as a whole.

The problem with this sort of “it \'s my body” radical self-autonomy is that it focuses solely on the self, while conveniently ignoring the enormous consequences of such legalization on others and society as a whole.


So your key issue is the doctor assisting in the suicide, thereby involving others?

Let \'s say you have a 90 year old individual with no family, suffering from cancer, who has no meaningful impact on others… If they take their own life, you are OK with it?

Just trying to understand where you are coming from.

Van’s question is a valid one, to be addressed shortly, but in digression one should note what often passes for arguing from principles in our current culture: the argument from the exceptional. When promoting or defending some contentious social or moral issue, we seem always to find the most extreme example imaginable and argue from this specific, then applying our conclusions to the general. Hence, for example, when arguing for government prescription health coverage, we must first find some old woman who has to eat cat food in order to pay for her prescriptions; when discussing gay adoption, we must find the idyllic gay couple, lifelong partners (or so we are told), ecstatically happy with nary a relational dispute, as parents; when arguing for assisted suicide, we must find the patient in unbearable pain with a loving husband passionate about ending her life “in dignity” by slipping her a deadly cocktail — or one who is dying utterly alone, with nary a friend or family member to share their suffering. That such argumentation almost invariably presents a false dichotomy is never considered; that far better alternatives might exist to solve the problem never pondered; that applying the suggestive solution based on emotion without consideration for its broad implications or ramifications might prove disastrous, is never seen as a possibility. We press for great social and policy changes with profound effects on culture and society using pop emotionalism and pulp fiction.

But I digress. So, to answer the question: I would not find suicide of such a sadly-abandoned individual justified, simply because no physician was involved. Suicide is the ultimate repudiation of life, of relationships, of hope, the product of the deep hopelessness and self-absorbed insanity of depression. My point was simply this: we all have free will. Each of us may choose, if we decide to do so, to end our own lives. There is a pernicious distortion of the idea of freedom which is a product of our radical individualism, to wit: I live in a free society, therefore by necessity I must be free to do whatsoever I please, and others must not only allow me to do so, but must bear the consequences of my actions, and must be actively engaged in enabling my behavior, because it is my right. Hence, I must be free to say anything I wish, without consequence, including criticism of my speech; I must be free to terminate my pregnancy, without guilt or restriction, though my unborn child pays the ultimate price; I must be free to end my life when I wish, and my physician must be required to deliver the lethal potion — or at least must be coerced into finding another doctor who will, if his “values” (defined as mere subjective opinions) don’t agree with mine.

Many of the “rights” which are being promulgated and promoted by today’s secular culture are in reality straw men, fine-sounding proxies for demands and desires far less salutary than they sound. Thus, gay marriage is not about gays getting married (hence the lack of enthusiasm among gay rights advocates for civil unions which provide all the legal benefits of marriage), but is instead an effort to destroy traditional heterosexual marriage as normative in culture, thereby removing not merely legal but cultural restraints on all forms of sexual and relational deviancy. The high standard — heterosexual marriage, with its enormous advantages in the raising of children and establishment of societal self-restraint, morality, and relational stability — must be brought down to the lowest common denominator of any two (or more) people getting “married” — with the sole purpose of muting societal condemnation for self-gratifying, dysfunctional and heterodox partnerships. Unrestricted abortion, a.k.a. “freedom of choice”, is about the uncompromising (albeit delusional) demand for unconstrained sexual license without consequences — especially for women, but also for their sperm donors who want no responsibility for their casual hookups: dispose of the unplanned pregnancy, move on to your next “partner”, and you have achieved the perfect “zipless fuck.”

Likewise, physician-assisted suicide is not at all about “death with dignity”, but rather about actively enlisting the culture in support of radical individual autonomy. Not only must we exert full control over the time and manner of our death — which we have always been able to do, by simply killing ourselves — but we demand that society support, honor, and praise this decision, without the faintest whiff of criticism or condemnation. It is not sufficient that we be able to kill ourselves. Rather, it is necessary that we actively kill those societal sensibilities and strictures which condemn such a choice as morally misguided and potentially destructive to our human dignity and our social fabric.

Were some silver-suited alien from Alpha Centuri to visit our noble globe, he would find our passion for self-extinction puzzling, to say the least. What manner of sentient being seeks to facilitate its own demise, only to perpetuate the illusion that they control their own lives? Has their existence no purpose but to be ended at their own direction? Are their relationships so shallow that they choose death over life, has their suffering no meaning, will their precious time with life partners, friends, and offspring be traded for the dark comfort of a deadly cocktail? Who are these intelligent fools who hand over the power of death to their doctors, oblivious to the evil which dwells in the hearts of men, waiting to be empowered by cold rationalism, scientific professionalism, self-justification, and sterile repetition?

Yet were our starship sojourner to study the society which breeds such nihilism, he would, by turns, find his answer: we are, for all our technological advances and unbounded prosperity, a culture without meaning, a people without purpose. We have embraced unquestioningly the mantra of materialism: we have come from nothing, and to nothing shall return. Our relationships mean naught but what we may gain from them; our suffering gains us nothing but rage and resentment; our deaths are like our lives — without hope, without a future, joyless and empty. We desperately push the buttons and mix the potions which promise to make us happy and whole, yet find they only echo forlornly through our hollow souls, singing that siren song:

“I am my own master.”

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22 thoughts on “On Assisted Suicide

  1. Hi Dr. Bob!

    Thanks for the detailed reply (I hadn’t check the other thread since last week). Now I understand where you are coming from, especially from a social fabric perspective.

    One thing – the reason I picked the extreme example was because I know of several people like that, not that because I was trying to leverage the most unimaginable argument.
    However, you are correct on that point as well.

    As always, I enjoy the site.


  2. Dr. Bob … I can see that you haven’t lost your touch. Hope that you don’t mind … but I’m going to add this post to my “Dr. Bob” collection so that I can read it again … and again.

    You truly are a master wordsmith.

  3. And may I add the ethical utilitarianism of, for example, Prof. Peter Singer, who argues that it is not merely okay but may be the duty of parents to end the life of a child (e.g., with Downs Syndrome) who is judged to require more resources than his or her life will ever contribute to society (read persons who are expected to contribute more).

    This is not merely the thin end of the wedge. It is a door wide open.

    That the argument is so easily accepted is even more troubling. For, who can predict what a child will be “worth”? What is the coin of value? Who decides?

  4. Dr. Bob, I don’t know of anyone that could have hit the nail more squarely than that.

    Thank you and Blessings.

  5. When promoting or defending some contentious social or moral issue, we seem always to find the most extreme example imaginable and argue from this specific, then applying our conclusions to the general.

    This may be one of the wisest sentences you have ever penned.

    As I read this post my mind flashed back to a href=”http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=88″>comments by Fr. Neuhaus several years ago regarding the official use of torture.

    Establishing a principle is not “merely for show.” Recognizing, clearly but sotto voce, that there will sometimes be exceptions to the principle is not hypocrisy. Those who, under the most extreme circumstances, violate the rule must be held strictly accountable to higher authority. Here the venerable maxim applies, abusus non tollit usus–the abuse does not abolish the use.

    Later he reiterates “As with all rules, the aim is to make sure that the exception to the rule does not become the rule.”

    To illustrate the point, those of us raising concerns about the official use of torture and prisoner abuse have been observing that slippery slope for some time now. As recently as last week we learn that the Iraqi reporter taken into custody for throwing his shoes at our president had to have a house call by a magistrate because he was in no condition to appear in public, presumably as the result of police beating.

    The intersection of law and morality is a sticky place, but my original query remains: is this a discussion of legality or morality?

    And again, I respectfully take issue with phrases like Unrestricted abortion, a.k.a. “freedom of choice.” Conflating unrestricted abortion with restricted abortion (and yes, there is such a thing… urged, incidentally, by a couple of justices in the original Roe decision) as well as clever but degrading terms like “zipless fuck” which can slip into any discussion unnoticed.

    I, for one, find virtually ALL abortions to be morally reprehensible but am “pro-choice.” I’m NOT, however, in favor of “unrestricted” abortions, having done some legal homework, but am prepared to press the “viability” issue hard to argue against abortions after the first trimester. That position may strike some as a compromise, and it may well be. But this seems to me a conversation calling for compromises.

    Regarding that other matter, so abusively described, my wife and I are looking forward to a grandchild from an unmarried daughter with no “significant other” in her life who deeply wants to be a mother. She is mature, secure in her job and has completed a year-long orientation to also be an approved foster parent as well.. She’s not trying to destroy any of society’s norms or degrade traditional marriage in any way and it is insulting to suggest otherwise.

    I give Donald Sensing the last word on gay marriage and whether it is assault on traditional heterosexual marriage:

    I believe that this state of affairs is contrary to the will of God. But traditionalists, especially Christian traditionalists (in whose ranks I include myself) need to get a clue about what has really been going on and face the fact that same-sex marriage, if it comes about, will not cause the degeneration of the institution of marriage; it is the result of it.

    His WSJ article from a few years ago is still worth close reading. He points to worms in the cultural apple other than those you mention.

    Physician-assisted suicide is for sure a dangerous slippery slope as anyone can see. But denial from a position of piety does little to lay down the legal boundaries that eventually must be articulated. Like Rev. Sensing I can be included in the ranks of “Christian traditionalists” but it’s time we all come to terms with how best to cope legally with moral questions about which not everyone is in agreement.

  6. “”””””but in digression one should note what often passes for arguing from principles in our current culture: the argument from the exceptional”””””””


    This aggravating bit of illogic is at the heart of so much of what passes for ideology and policy these days. It is the same crap that has turned the Bill of Rights into a “Protected Species Act” for criminals, and now, also terrorists .

  7. You’ve stated the principles beautifully. Your readers can understand. The problem is getting past the “I am my own master” individual and culture who seemingly cannot/will not hear anything contrary to the mantra. Their emptiness has been filled up with howling voices assuring them of their enlightenment and compassion. It is a matter of prayer and fasting, then perhaps the arguments will have some power.

  8. “Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.” – G. K. Chesterton

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