This past week my newsfeed filled with news of the suicides of two famous people, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. It has struck me that there is consensus among the posts I see that these deaths were tragic, that the loss of their lives is something to be mourned, and that the cause of their death—suicide—is something to be prevented—or is it?
As best we know, Spade and Bourdain died alone, at their own hands. But what if they hadn’t been alone? What if their suicides had been assisted? What if their actions were aided by a physician? In our confused culture, a subtle change of facts can make the thing we prevent the thing some assist.
Which brings to mind an experience I had on a plane last weekend. I was flying to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to speak at a conference for physicians on the topic of assisted suicide, newly legal in Canada as well as in places like DC, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, The Netherlands, and Belgium, to name a few. During my flight I read a phenomenal book on the subject by my friends Jonathon Van Maren and Blaise Alleyne: “A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.” Shortly before landing, a passenger next to me noticed the cover and commented to me, “That’s certainly not light reading!” he said. In a brief conversation I learned that he had elderly relatives and his wife worked in healthcare. “Would you like to have my copy?” I asked. “It’s a short read—I finished it on this flight.” He gratefully accepted it and promised to e-mail me his thoughts.
Van Maren and Alleyne have brilliantly distilled the assisted suicide/euthanasia debate to this central question:
Who gets suicide assistance and who gets suicide prevention?
When the debate is framed that way it becomes difficult to give anyone suicide assistance—which is the point. If we believe in human dignity and equality then everyone inclined to suicide should get suicide prevention, not suicide assistance. Van Maren and Alleyne help explain it this way: A lot of times in the assisted suicide debate people will say it’s about choice, about the freedom of an individual to choose whether she herself lives or dies. And yet, if we would try to prevent some people’s suicides (e.g., Spade and Bourdain) then it’s not about choice at all. By trying to stop their deaths we are overriding their choice. Which means rather than being about choice, assisting with some suicides is about judgment—about other parties making a judgment about whether someone’s life is worth saving—or not, about whether someone is better off dead—or not. If person X would prevent Spade’s suicide but assist with grandma’s suicide, then person X is making a judgment about each person’s life and not valuing them equally. And that’s the problem.
Van Maren and Alleyne write,
“Most people who support assisted suicide also support suicide prevention. This is The Split Position… [which] considers suicide and assisted suicide as totally separate topics. People who hold to this position have often never tried to reconcile their conflicting beliefs. Our goal in responding to The Split Position in conversation is to attack this cognitive dissonance – to pit their own beliefs in preventing suicide and assisting suicide against each other, and show that The Split Position is a basic human rights violation because it splits people into protected and unprotected classes. Suicidal despair is always a symptom of some other unmet need. The desire to die is changeable, suicide prevention is a human right, suicide assistance is a human rights violation, and our moral duty to the suicidal is to prevent self-harm, never to facilitate it.”
In articulating why the “Split Position” should be rejected (as well as the position which favors suicide assistance for anyone), Van Maren and Alleyne explain the pro-life position of total suicide prevention:
“In a society that truly values each and every human life, we have a responsibility to view the desire for suicide as an opportunity to love that person better, and to love that person more. What someone is saying when they express the desire for suicide is that they are in pain, and that they feel unloved. We have a responsibility to respond. From a personal and social standpoint, we need to ask questions such as: What is our duty to the suicidal? Are we responsible to care for and love those who cannot love us back? How can we love this person better?
“Opposing assisted suicide does not mean a refusal to recognize how dire situations of extreme suffering or how painful the final days of terminal illness can be. It simply means rejecting assisted suicide as an ethical, humane, or life-affirming response to those circumstances. Instead, we propose that treatment centred around the person (rather than ending that person’s life) be implemented.”
They further observe,
“John Paul II wrote that ‘the world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love.’ Suffering unleashes love, it demands our creative response, and a response to alleviate suffering, but never to eliminate the sufferer. Our duty to the suicidal is suicide prevention, and even in the face of a terminal prognosis or incurable condition, never to ‘quit’ on someone and give into suicidal despair. Rather, we must work to relieve unbearable suffering and apply our creativity and imagination to improve quality of life, even when it is in short supply, even in a person’s darkest moments or final days.”
And so, in the wake of the tragic deaths of Spade and Bourdain, let us remember that just as they deserved suicide prevention—not assistance, so do the elderly, the disabled, the sick, and the dying. To further understand why, get a copy of Van Maren and Alleyne’s book today. It is the best apologetic I’ve read on the subject.