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"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

The Free World

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Written by Sister Y

December 9, 2008 at 4:23 am

It’s a Step

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Fuck yeah, Washington:

Washington will become the nation’s second state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal prescriptions to terminally ill patients after voters gave resounding support to a contentious end-of-life measure.

With more than 1.3 million votes cast, Initiative 1000 led by about 16 percent, winning all but six counties across the state.

“Its time has come. It’s as simple as that,” former Gov. Booth Gardner, who poured $470,000 of his personal fortune into the pro-initiative campaign, said Tuesday night. “People have the right to have control over the final days of life.”

The inappropriate moral stigma attached to choosing to die is slowly fading. A return to tribal taboos, or religious restrictions unconnected with morality, is always a danger for humans. But, I must admit, this is progress. We are slowly moving in the direction of right.

Written by Sister Y

November 5, 2008 at 9:35 pm

The Repugnance of the Forced Life Position

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Washington is considering an assisted suicide measure similar to Oregon’s. Predictably, churches, especially the Catholic Church, have spoken out against the measure. The Most Rev. Carlos Sevilla, quoted in the Yakima Herald, provides one of the most repugnant, cruel, mean-spirited defenses of the forced life position I have yet heard:

Initiative 1000 is an attack on our most fundamental beliefs and teaching, and placing it on the November ballot would contradict our proclamation of the gospel of life . . . Pain and suffering and illness are important parts of our faith experience. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, suffering people who don’t share his religious beliefs should not have the right to die – in a democracy – because his religious beliefs place a value on suffering! God likes suffering, so suck it up.

Meanwhile, in India, lawmakers consider repealing a law that makes attempted suicide a criminal offense. Its Law Commission offers this compassionate analysis:

If a person has the right to enjoy his life, he cannot be forced to live that life to his detriment, disadvantage or disliking. If a person is leading a miserable life or is seriously sick or having an incurable disease, it is improper as well as immoral to ask him to live a painful life and to suffer agony. It is an insult to humanity. [Emphasis mine.]

Indeed, an insult to humanity in the name of God is exactly what Rev. Sevilla is offering.

Analytically, Sevilla’s position appears similar to Velleman’s, in that a particular value that “belongs to humanity” cannot be violated, even if upholding that value causes great suffering to individuals. Compassionate followers of Christ also recently opposed the right of an 11-year-old Romanian girl who was raped by her uncle to get an abortion. The interest-independent value of life, and all that.

Written by Sister Y

June 28, 2008 at 8:09 am