At a recent presentation I gave on euthanasia and assisted suicide, an audience member asked about how to respond to people who say that ultimately the debate is about “choice” and if someone wants to choose to end their own life, it’s their body and their choice; it doesn’t affect anyone else so we should allow assisted suicide.
I’ve already written here about “our” lives and the responsibility we have toward being good stewards of these gifts. Now I’d like to reflect on the concept of choice and whether any one person’s choice is really independent of, and without effect on, the other.
In my first year English class at UBC we were assigned to read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. His magnificent writing moved me deeply and so many of his statements became quotable quotes for me; in particular I was struck by these words:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Choices we make, big or small, positive or negative—these have a permeating influence. They don’t just affect us. Like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water, they diffuse into the surrounding area and impact people who, upon being touched, make other choices that in turn affect others.
Consider smoking. Besides the obvious impact on others being second-hand smoke, if someone only ever smoked in isolation, the effects on his body because of smoking would still impact others: subsequent lung disease would create a use of the medical system, which would impact society. If he died early as a result and never accomplished things he would have if he had remained healthy—that would impact society too.
The interconnectedness of our choices to other peoples’ lives can be seen in a delightfully simple illustration: Several years ago in Newington, Connecticut, a customer at a coffee shop decided to pay the order of the patron behind him. That led to a chain reaction so that the next one thousand customers paid for the order of the person behind them.
How true it is that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Or consider Zuly Sanguino, a Colombian woman who has overcome profound suffering: She was born without arms and legs. Her father committed suicide when she was two. She was raped when she was seven. She was bullied as a child and almost attempted suicide at 15. Now, however, she is an artist and motivational speaker who lives an incredibly full and rewarding life.
She said, “It gives me so much happiness to know I'm helping people. One boy was about to take his own life with a gun when he saw a TV show I was on. He realized he had to be brave and decided not to take his life. He wrote to me and we're now really good friends. I get letters from lots of people who say I've helped them through difficult situations.”
How many peoples’ lives are better because of Zuly’s witness? Correspondingly, had she committed suicide (on her own or with assistance) how many peoples’ lives would be worse (and even over) because of her absence from this world?
How true it is: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Our choices impact people for better—or for worse. Consider the story of Will, a young man who was killed via the death penalty. His lawyer, David Dow, recounts Will’s story in a TED Talk: Will’s dad left his mom while she was pregnant with Will. Will’s mom, afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill Will with a butcher knife when he was 5 years old. Will was taken into the care of his brother until that brother committed suicide. By age 9, Will was living on his own. He eventually joined a gang and committed murder.
The choices of Will’s father, mother, and brother undoubtedly impacted Will. There is simply no denying that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
So the next time someone supports euthanasia or assisted suicide because such a choice “only affects the people who want to die” we can use the above stories as analogies to show that that simply isn’t true. Involving medical professionals in Person A’s assisted suicide means Person B may no longer trust her health care provider to properly care for her life. Person A’s assisted suicide will impact the disposition of the individual who supplies the life-ending drugs or injects the deadly poison because you cannot kill another human being without that leaving a mark on your mind, your emotions, and your interactions with others. Person A’s legally endorsed assisted suicide will create a climate where Person B asks for assisted suicide too—not because she truly wants it, but because she feels guilted into it by a culture that embraces it and makes her feel like a useless burden. Person A’s assisted suicide will influence others to respond to their own suffering and obstacles by giving up instead of turning them into opportunities (as Zuly did). How do I know this? Because as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has said, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”