Assisted Suicide is Painless

Voting kills.  Sometimes for the best.

On Election Day, citizens of most states will have the opportunity not only to vote for individuals, but also for various statewide propositions and initiatives.

In my home commonwealth of Massachusetts, there are three such proposals being brought to voters’ attention, neatly dubbed, “Question 1,” “Question 2” and “Question 3.”

The first of these involves the right of car owners to decent diagnostic and repair work (as a bike rider, I take on faith that this is important).  Question 3 tackles the matter of whether marijuana should be available for medical purposes, about which there is no shortage of debate.

But it is Question 2 that may prove the most emotionally explosive of all:  Should terminally ill people be granted the right, with doctoral assistance, to voluntarily end their lives?

The proposition is known as the “Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act.”  If passed, it would allow doctors to prescribe and administer lethal medication to consenting patients with fewer than six months to live.  Washington, Oregon and Montana have passed similar laws, from which the Massachusetts act’s major provisions are largely lifted.

Suicide, be it assisted or unassisted, is perennially among the issues Americans are most queasy of discussing, either from fear of the subject’s intrinsic sensitivity, or simply because (to their good fortune) they do not understand it.

The reason we shirk the subject when we can, I think, is because suicide strikes many as a wholly unnatural act.  Certainly, it is oftentimes attempted and carried out by those in a state of extreme psychological duress, if not outright insanity, and we try to comfort ourselves into thinking that no one in a sound mental state would choose, in Shakespearean terms, not to be.

Religious folk emphasize that our life on Earth is sacred, and thus not to be taken into one’s own hands, while atheists such as myself stress that the proverbial “here and now” may well be all there is.  Both outlooks would seem to rule out suicide in the first round.

George Carlin dissected the mystery of this most curious of acts to great effect in his 2005 HBO special, “Life is Worth Losing.”  The bit, in which Carlin imagines the meticulous thought process and planning of a hypothetical case, is acutely disturbing (and darkly amusing) because it suggests that suicide can, in fact, be the work of a perfectly rational mind, indeed.

I am reminded, also, of the man who shot himself outside Harvard’s Memorial Hall in the fall of 2010, leaving behind a 1,904-page paper, titled, “Suicide Note,” described by the man’s mother as a “sprawling series of arguments that touch upon historical, religious and nihilist themes.”  Such a person could hardly be said to have been acting on a whim.

As one could expect, Massachusetts’s Question 2, like the pre-existing laws out west, takes care to ensure that a patient wanting to end his or her life is proved to be in his or her right mind.

One especially interesting detail from the proposition’s text—also based on precedent—is the requirement that a patient reaffirm his or her desire to die 15 days after making the initial plea.  Anyone who has ever been to the mall, purchased an expensive item on an impulse and subsequently had second thoughts, should appreciate the care and balance of this provision.

With or without such restrictions, I am generally in favor of a right to assisted suicide, and would recommend voting in the affirmative to Question 2.  I would add that, as a matter of principle, I am in favor of a right to unassisted suicide as well.  It seems to me that if there is such a thing as a right to life, it must include the right to opt out of life—much as the freedoms symbolized by the American flag include the freedom to burn said flag.

I am also sympathetic to the underlying notion of being exhausted by life—of having had quite enough, thank you very much, for any number of reasons.

William F. Buckley, the conservative intellectual force who surely made the most of his own time on Earth before checking out (from natural causes), told Charlie Rose upon his 80th birthday that were there a magical pill to add 25 years to his lifespan, he would refuse to swallow it.  He reasoned, “There’s no enticements to me that justify the weariness, the repetition, my hours of exercise.”

Buckley opposed suicide, and never entertained carrying it out.  But suppose he did?  By this point, in sickness and in health, he had carried himself about as far as could be expected of a single person and was ready to hang it up and call it a life, going as far to say, “I’m utterly prepared to stop living on.”

Who are we to stop him?

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