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The Underground Railroad

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He might have done it for ideological reasons. He might have done it for money. I don’t care. He is the motherfucking Underground Railroad to me. His name is Jeff George Ostfeld, and he was arrested recently for allegedly smuggling barbiturates into the United States – and potentially supplying these drugs to a 29-year-old Oregon woman who used them to commit suicide.

Authorities say Ostfeld, from Las Vegas, was carrying 1,200 milliliters of pentobarbital — vials with a picture of a Great Dane on the label — when U.S. officials stopped him May 18 at the Progreso International Bridge in South Texas. Officials said at a detention hearing last month that he was also carrying a camera with still photos of what appeared to be a deceased [Oregon woman Jennifer] Malone and videos that included what appeared to be her last words, “I’m scared.”

At that May hearing, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Robert Haberkamp III said Ostfeld, 33, told him that he planned to sell the remaining animal tranquilizers he bought in Mexico. He said he wanted to sell them to others seeking to end their lives, including a woman in the United Kingdom and a man in Australia, according to Haberkamp. He has not been charged in Malone’s death.[Emphasis mine.]

Suicide is the only act that is not a crime, the assisting of which is a crime.

Fuck that. We would-be suicides are slaves. Those who would assist us, at the price of their own liberty, are no less heroes than the conductors and stationmasters of the Underground Railroad.

From the AP:

Malone’s boyfriend, Tom Piazza, says she suffered from chronic depression and had attempted suicide before. But he says she couldn’t have done it without help.

To me, it sounds like Jennifer Malone was in the same situation I am in – she was even within two years of my age. Would my last words have been “I am scared?” Possibly. But should that have any effect whatsoever on Ostfeld’s criminal liability? How could it? Who would not be somewhat scared on approaching death? But a determined adult who ingests poison is the proximate cause of her own suicide – not the person who provided the poison to her. A person who provided pentobarbital to me would be nothing but an agent of my deliverance.

Ostfeld was charged with importing a controlled substance and intent to distribute.

Yes, let’s keep that drug war going. It seems to be working out so far.

Written by Sister Y

June 25, 2009 at 4:58 am

"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.

Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2009 at 1:49 am

Victims of the Suicide Prohibition: Mark & Julie James

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Debbie Purdy may be about to get an answer to her legal question. But probably not.

Mark and Julie James, the parents of British rugby player Dan James, are under investigation for helping their son to end his life. Dan James travelled to Switzerland last month to end his life. How, exactly, his parents may have “assisted” his quest has not been released. The case may – or may not – shed light on how the British legal system will treat those who “assist suicide” in incidental ways. If the Jameses are prosecuted, that is one kind of answer. If the Jameses are not prosecuted, however, it is no assurance for Debby Purdy’s husband.

Update: authorities have declined to prosecute Mr. and Mrs. James. (Thanks, Steven.)

The QC, Kier Starmer, is quoted as saying:

This is a tragic case involving as it does the death of a young man in difficult and unique circumstances. While there are public interest factors in favour of prosecution, not least of which is the seriousness of this offence, I have determined that these are outweighed by the public interest factors that say that a prosecution is not needed.

I would point to the fact that Daniel, as a fiercely independent young man, was not influenced by his parents to take his own life and the evidence indicates he did so despite their imploring him not to. I send my condolences to Daniel’s family and friends. [Emphasis mine.]

Starmer seems to articulate a rule that it’s okay to assist in a suicide as long as one does not influence the decedent to commit suicide, and as long as one “implores” the decedent not to do it. Precedent based on apparent attitude and feeling seems strange to me. In addition, Daniel’s act wasn’t criminal – even if his parents had influenced him to commit suicide, “influencing” someone to do something that is not a crime is a strange sort of crime. It does seem cruel and impolite – even I don’t go around influencing people to commit suicide (quite the opposite, despite my belief that suicide is often rational) – but the requirement that those assisting a suicide must be, at the same time, fighting against the suicide, seems strange to me.

Perhaps it matters that it’s the parents or caretakers doing, or not doing, the influencing. Then it is a matter of undue influence or improper use of one’s authority. A regular person may influence another to have sex with him, and it is not a crime – but if a person in power (doctor, lawyer, caretaker, parent) uses his power to influence another (patient, client, charge, child) to commit the same sexual act, it may rise to the level of a tort or even a crime – almost as if physical force were used.

But nobody seems to be talking about autonomy here.

At any rate, it’s not much guidance for Debby Purdy.

Written by Sister Y

October 17, 2008 at 4:48 pm

Cheery Social Policy

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The “cheery,” frequently alluded to by David Benatar in Better Never to Have Been, might be defined as those people experiencing optimistic bias, who are as a result untroubled by, or overly dismissive of, serious problems involving human suffering. Cheeriness is an extremely common trait, and the cheery certainly make up a majority of the human population and exert a major influence on social policy.

The fundamental problem with cheeriness is the assumption that a good life – a pleasant life – is relatively easy to achieve. This assumption is, of course, true for the cheery, but the cheery are able to ignore – and perhaps can’t even conceive of – the suffering of a significant minority of the population. A good life is not easily achieved for many of us.

The cheery do not need to use extraordinary means to achieve a tolerable life. Behaviors that others engage in, perhaps in pursuit of a tolerable life – weird sex with lots of people, say, or using steroids or marijuana or LSD or benzodiazepines – strike the cheery as unnecessary and harmful. And, for a cheery person, these behaviors are wholly unnecessary – life is perfectly tolerable without them. And they increase the risk of harm! Who wants harm?

What the cheery cannot imagine is the importance, the function of these behaviors, and others like them – the pursuit of the interesting, and the temporary suspension of the intolerability of existence, which intolerability (for many) the cheery do not even perceive, and therefore do not properly weight as a problem.

I suspect that the same cheery social policy is at work with the question of suicide. Groundless faith that anyone can have a good life, bar none, leads to a general policy of suicide prohibition. A more mature understanding of the seriousness of suffering, and a more realistic evaluation of the possibility for its amelioration, would lead at least to a policy with more exceptions.

Written by Sister Y

August 28, 2008 at 11:45 pm

Incentives Will Fail: Why Procreation is Like Prostitution and Drugs

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In a previous post, I said that an outright prohibition on birth would be a moral horror, because given our current level of technology, it would mean forced abortion, forced sterilization, or both. While a pure consequentialist might still argue that the harm of later generations being born might outweigh the extra suffering a “forced abortion generation” had to undergo, there are strong agent-relative reasons to not forcibly perform abortions, even though by not doing so, we allow a greater violation of rights to occur.

In attempting to formulate an example to illustrate this, I noticed that all the examples in the anti-consequentialist literature (people like Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams) feature an agent faced with a choice of harming someone himself, or having someone other than his possible victim do much greater harm. The antinatalist forced abortion dilemma is different: one would be faced with a choice of harming someone, or allowing that person to do harm to another person. The forced abortion case has a great deal more in common, perhaps, with defense-of-others cases than the typical anti-consequentialist examples. (It should give us pause, however, that anti-abortion fanatics follow this same logic to the conclusion that it’s morally appropriate to shoot abortion doctors.)

There is an alternate political possibility to forced abortion and forced sterilization: creating an incentive structure that provides negative incentives for birth and positive incentives for not procreating (and which, one would hope, would legitimize refusing to give birth and remove some of the social and moral legitimacy of voluntary procreation.) But both an outright ban and an incentive structure suffer from the same problems as those in place to curb prostitution and drugs.

Anti-prostitution laws exist for a variety of reasons, but the most common justification in our modern era is that they exist to protect women who are or would become prostitutes from exploitation. The problem with anti-prostitution laws is that they universally seem to do greater harm to the very class of people they’re intended to protect – prostitute women. It is impossible to imagine an anti-prostitution law that would not harm prostitutes. Even laws that provide for prosecution of prostitutes’ customers only, and not the prostitutes themselves, drive traffic underground and thereby make it much less safe for prostitute women.

Anti-drug laws are, in theory, motivated by a desire to minimize harm to people, including drug users and those otherwise affected by the drug trade, such as those whom drug users might steal from to support their habits. But a consensus seems to be developing among economists and social scientists that the drug prohibition does more harm than it prevents – to the very people it is intended to protect.

Birth seems to have in common with prostitution and drugs the status of being a good with inelastic, or close to inelastic, demand, especially for the first child. China’s one-child policy has had some success, though there are reports that it functions both as an incentive structure and as an outright ban (I can’t figure out if reports of forced abortion are reliable). But the one-child policy is not an antinatalist policy but a limited procreation policy. There is reason to believe that increasing the cost of procreation in an attempt to drive procreation to zero – either through a sort of tax structure, or through positive incentives for non-procreation – would fail miserably, and, as with prostitution and drugs, would harm the very people the policy was intended to protect. Any incentive against procreation (a) would likely not significantly reduce procreation, since, based as it is in a strong biological drive, some level of procreation likely has near-inelastic demand (and supply is hard to control); and (b) would necessarily harm the children who were nonetheless brought into existence.

For example, let’s say procreation now carries a $10,000 fine or 6 months in jail if the fine is not paid. Most people would likely procreate anyway, and either pay the fine or serve the jail sentence. And a child brought into the world would be faced with parents who have either $10,000 less to spend on his upbringing, or 6 months less time to work to save money for the child’s upbringing.

I think there is one possible hope: incentives for voluntary, permanent sterilization. While, at some point, the majority of humans seem to want to procreate, humans have a notoriously high discount rate. If a great enough incentive were offered early enough in life, many might accept the incentive and be permanently sterilized; while they might regret the decision later, their children and grandchildren would never exist, and would therefore never have reason to regret their lives.

Written by Sister Y

August 10, 2008 at 6:15 pm

The Kind of Suicide Prevention I Can Get Behind

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I’m still on a break, but wanted to briefly mention a study that exemplifies the kind of suicide prevention I fully support. The study, published in the Archives of Opthalmology (July 2008), links suicide with low vision – but only when health is poor in general. Risk of suicide is elevated (though not statistically significantly) for individuals with low vision only, but is significantly elevated for individuals who are in poor health and have visual impairment – well above the increased risk for individuals with poor health alone.

The intervention proposed by the authors of the study is not to lock up everyone with low vision, or to have their doctors ask them humiliating questions to check for depression, but, shockingly, “better treatments for the underlying conditions that cause visual impairment.” (The authors also encourage eye doctors to be aware of the increased risk and provide appropriate referrals, but the primary recommendation of the study seems to be better treatment of visual problems.)

This is the kind of suicide prevention that even one who believes strongly in a right to suicide can support. This sort of study identifies specific types of suffering that lead to suicide, and recommends actually relieving the specific types of suffering. If this type of intervention were implemented – if old, sick people got better vision care – suicides would likely be prevented, but they wouldn’t be the suicides of people determined to die, people whose true end is death. The suicides averted by this type of intervention would be bad suicides – suicides by people who value their lives but suffer so greatly from a specific problem (or problems) that they choose to end their lives. There is nothing humiliating or coercive about better vision care. I would love to see more studies like this, and more interventions of this type.

Written by Sister Y

July 14, 2008 at 10:37 pm

The Suicide Prohibition is Humiliating and Cruel

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In a just society, a Nembutal prescription would be available to any adult who asked for it and could articulate a clear wish to die, along with a non-delusional reason for wanting to die.

There is no compelling moral reason to force people to stay alive who do not wish to live. A few serious ethical justifications have been offered for the assisted suicide prohibition for the terminally ill, but it is doubtful that these complex ethical arguments, or the <a href="http://www.ncd.gohttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.quote.gif
insert blockquotev/newsroom/publications/1997/suicide.htm”>paternalistic arguments offered on behalf of people with disabilities, are what’s really behind the general suicide prohibition in its political form. The suicide prohibition exists because policy has almost no thought for ethics, except for the poorly-realized “folk ethic” that is as far into ethical thought as most human beings ever get. “Folk ethics” allows people to tolerate things like slavery, female subjugation, and marriage prohibition for gay people. Real ethics does not.

A religious justification is not an ethical justification. In a democracy, a religious justification has about as much genuine ethical power as an appeal to aesthetic preferences. Religious people who wish to make policy arguments must still do meta-ethics. In our society, they rarely bother to do so.

People feel bad when they hear about suicide. Since suicide is sad, people wish to prevent it for sentimental reasons. They fail to consider things like autonomy and the suffering of people who are forced to stay alive against their will. These concepts are not as easy for a primate brain to grasp as the folk-ethical appeal of the suicide prohibition. The suicide prohibition existed long before our modern model enshrined mental illness as the sole possible cause of suicide; like the practice of circumcision, the suicide prohibition is a practice in search of a reason.

But there is no reason.

In regard to the suffering and humiliation of those forced to stay alive against their will, here’s an Australian news video about an elderly Australian man with incurable mesothelioma flying to Mexico with his wife to illegally take home the veterinary drug Nembutal for the purpose of suicide. The wife wonders angrily why he can’t just buy it in Australia.

Despite the humiliation and exertion of this effort, they are the lucky ones. Apparently, according to some reports, even this method is now closed to those who wish to die.

Written by Sister Y

July 3, 2008 at 10:03 pm