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Archive for the ‘legalization’ Category

"I regard this as justice"

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June Hartley of Lodi, California, was charged with “assisting a suicide” and “causing injury leading to death” for helping her brother to commit suicide. She recently pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of “being an accessory to a crime.” (I thought suicide was not illegal?)

Her brother, blues musician Jimmy Hartley, had suffered a series of strokes which left him bound to a wheelchair and in constant neuropathic pain. Prior to his death, at age 45, he had begged others to help him end his life.

Both Hartley’s lawyer, Randy Thomas, and the prosecutor in the case, Sherri Adams, expressed approval of the plea agreement.

“I regard this as justice,” Thomas said. “It sent two messages: The district attorney had an acknowledgement [sic] that the law was broken but also that it was a unique situation involving mercy.”

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Sherri Adams, said the plea agreement was just. Adams said the District Attorney’s Office must scrutinize cases of assisted suicide, which are illegal in California, to prevent malicious killings that are masked as merciful.

Hartley’s actions, Adams said, were a genuine act of mercy.

“This case did not involve any ill will,” Adams said. “The defendant violated the law out of love and support for her own brother.” [Emphasis mine.]

Both Hartley’s attorney and the prosecutor seem to agree that this is the correct outcome for a case of assisted suicide.[1] Adams and Thomas recognize two kinds of harm:

  1. The harm of living in misery and not being able to die (hence the recognition that the act of helping a person to die can be merciful or compassionate, and that such a person should not be punished);
  2. The harm of a “malicious killing” (presumably a murder, but perhaps something else is meant) going unpunished.

The statement that the outcome in Hartley’s case is “justice” indicates that the correct balance has been struck between the two kinds of harm.

In fact, in this case the first interest – the right to choose death over suffering – is almost completely sacrificed at the expense of the second – punishing “malicious” killers. James Hartley’s interests, and those of people like him, are ignored. Adams is concerned with “malicious” killers disguising their work as assisted suicide. But what about all the people suffering in misery, who have a longstanding wish to die, but cannot die because anyone assisting them will face prosecution? The idea that June Hartley’s actions were “merciful” concedes that her brother had an interest in dying. Prosecuting people who assist suicides does nothing to protect that interest.

Also, as I have previously argued, prosecuting assisted suicides is an extremely poor way (in practical terms) to prevent malicious killings from being disguised as suicides. In Oregon and Washington, for example, it would be extremely difficult to make a murder look like an assisted suicide, at least a murder of a person ill enough to qualify for suicide assistance from a doctor. Since a comfortable means of assisted suicide is legal, with many safeguards to ensure that it is the true wish of the decedent, an “assisted suicide” by any other means would be unlikely and extremely suspicious. I assert that assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington is much harder to fake than in California – and, of course, the right to die is protected better there, as well. Both interests recognized by Adams and Thomas are poorly protected by the solution they claim is “justice.”

Elsewhere on the web, TGGP rips apart Frontier Psychiatrist‘s definition of rationality, in the context of suicide (“Life is a disease, so cut the bullshit please.”). Rationality in this context means that a decision is “characterized by reason or ‘makes sense’ to others,” FP claims. I manage to comment in both places without rolling my eyes or sighing deeply.

And Bryan Caplan wonders why so few terminally ill people kill themselves.


1. The term “mercy killing” is often used in cases such as Hartley’s. I think this term is misleading: “killing” implies that one person caused another person’s death – such as by smothering or shooting the person – without his permission. In Hartley’s case, she merely helped her brother achieve his own aim of dying. Helping someone to commit suicide who has a longstanding wish to die is not properly considered a killing.

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Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2009 at 1:49 am

The Parable of the Sexy Librarian

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Imagine a librarian with dual master’s degrees in library science and women’s studies. Our librarian works at a public library by day, but moonlights as a call girl. She sees her sex work as a lucrative and liberating activity, and her decision to do sex work came after long thought into ethics, psychology, feminism, and personal soul-searching.

Now imagine that this librarian has a collection of materials addressing the ins and outs of becoming a prostitute, and explaining how to be successful as a prostitute. Despite her deep belief that being a prostitute is not wrong, mightn’t she feel a bit of hesitation before making this collection of materials widely available, even to children and teenagers? Indeed, mightn’t our sexy librarian wonder whether those seeking the information might be harmed by it?

I write this because it was recently called to my attention that searchers sometimes reach my work after a Google search on “how to successfully commit suicide.” However, luckily for me (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), I am not in the same ethical position as the sexy librarian, because I have no information to offer. If I had information that could help ordinary people commit suicide surely and painlessly, I would have an ethical dilemma over whether to post that information (assuming I didn’t just immediately put the technique into practice on myself). But I do not.

Our society, of course, has such information, and such means. Any doctor could help any one of us to a painless death, but even if the doctor wished to do so, he would be prohibited from doing so by our society’s criminal laws. Our society – the people around us – prefer that we suffer. This should fill us all not with despair, but with anger.

I make no judgment as to whether any given suicide is proper or not. Many impute selfish motives to the suicide – that the suicide took her own interest in not suffering as being more important than the (questionable) interest of her relatives in her continued company. I do not believe it is selfish to commit suicide. But I’d encourage those looking for a way out of their suffering to also consider their fellow sufferers – those who pray for death and cannot achieve it. Very few of us are speaking out and advocating for ourselves. We are largely invisible to society, partially because our view is considered offensive and harmful, even illegal, and partially because many of us simply leave the world without advocating on behalf of all would-be suicides. The sexy librarian is in a dilemma when deciding whether to make “How To Be A Prostitute” available to anyone who wants to see it, including, perhaps, twelve-year-olds. But, I would argue, she is in no such dilemma when she advocates for the legalization of prostitution, and attempts to publicize the suffering of prostitutes under criminalization.

I encourage others to do the same for would-be suicides (and for those who have not yet suffered the harm of being brought into existence).

Written by Sister Y

May 12, 2008 at 8:08 pm