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On Pulling the Suicide Debate Out of the Shadows

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Jay Bookman’s article, “Time to pull the suicide debate out of the shadows” – in a newspaper in Georgia, the site of an idiotic new development in assisted suicide criminalization – articulates the most typical position toward suicide in our society. He is in favor of a limited right to suicide for people who really have a good reason to die – paralyzed people, or people with physically painful, terminal illnesses – but not in favor of a general right to suicide for those of us who are suffering, but don’t have a good reason to want to die. His questions, and his responses, are:

[D]o my inalienable rights as a human being extend to the right to self-destruction? If my life is truly my own, shouldn’t I be able to end it as I see fit?

Personally, I think the answer is almost always no. Societal consensus, backed by medical research and experience, dictates that a person in decent physical health who wants to commit suicide is by definition mentally ill — no fully sane person would make such a decision. [Emphasis mine.]

The key to this is the “by definition.” Suicide is believed to be a product of mental illness because it is defined as such. Suicidal ideation is one of the criteria for diagnosing DSM-IV Major Depressive Disorder. But defining something as mental illness does not make it so.

I fear that Bookman would not believe how much many of us suffer – to the point of wanting to die – who are not, unfortunately for us, terminally ill – who are not, technically, “suffering intolerably from an irreversible condition which has become more than [we] can bear,” a definition that is too “loose,” in Bookman’s words. Yet this “standard so loose as to be no standard at all” does not nearly cover all of us who deserve to be allowed to die. We have taken all the antidepressants. We have tried all the therapies. We still want to die. Why should we be forced to stay alive? Or forced to choose between a miserable, unwanted existence and a horrible method of suicide, like shooting ourselves in the head or slashing our arteries? A method that carries the risk of ending up paralyzed and suffering even more in a hospital for the rest of our lives?

Bookman is right to argue that sick, dying people should be able to end their lives. But why? Bookman reports of the Georgia case,

Celmer, the man who died in June, was recovering from cancer of the jaw and apparently sought death not because of pain or looming death, but because of shame at the disfigurement the cancer had caused. In those and other cases, if the factual claims against them prove true, Final Exit members appear to have acted irresponsibly and criminally.

Why is it okay to want to die if you’re in physical pain or about to die, but not if you’re horribly disfigured? Or unbearably miserable, and unlikely to get better?

If the right to die is grounded in autonomy, there’s no reason not to extend the right to a comfortable death to those of us who rationally want to die (i.e., who have a serious, longstanding wish to die that is not the product of a delusion) but are not physically ill. There are ways to ensure that only rational people (regardless of DSM-IV diagnosis) are allowed to commit suicide. If anything, those of us who are defined as mentally ill (especially those of us with treatment-resistant DSM-IV “Major Depressive Disorder“) have a better reason to die than people with terminal illnesses: we have much longer to live in pain.

Written by Sister Y

March 5, 2009 at 8:32 am