Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CONSENSUAL CRIMES
SUICIDE AND ASSISTED SUICIDE
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- THERE CAN BE NO MORE fundamental statement concerning individual freedom and responsibility than this: Our bodies and our lives belong to ourselves. Our bodies do not belong to the state, to our relatives, or to our friends.
- The laws against suicide and assisted suicide run directly counter to this concept. These laws spring from our cultural unwillingness to face the reality of death, and the religious belief that "only God can take a life."suicide based on religious grounds are precisely the ones who support capital punishment. Could we at least have a little consistency here, please?>
- The laws against suicide are obviously the silliest laws in the world: if one is successful, who gets punished? If one does not succeed at suicide, then are we to assume that arresting and locking that person up is somehow going to help? "Where am I?" "You're in a jail cell. You attempted suicide. You're going to spend the next ten years of your life here." Terrific.
- When Derek Humphrey's book on suicide, Final Exit, was published, it caused an absolute scandal. You would think he had divulged some great mystical secret; as though we didn't know that the means to our own end is in our hands, and is always at hand. That we can commit suicide at any time is a given. The only thing that laws against suicide force one to do when committing suicide is use techniques that are either messy, painful, dangerous to othersor all three.
- In attempting suicide, there's always the chance that one will wind up not dead, but a vegetable. It is this fear that causes people to use fail-safe (that is, absolutely guaranteed) methods of suicide that either hurt (hanging, slitting wrists in a warm bathtub), are messy (bullets in the head), or could potentially harm others (jumping off buildings, high-speed car crashes). The standard technique of "taking a bottle of sleeping pills" is uncertain at best. If one takes too few, one may wind up a vegetable. If one takes too many, one may vomit before sufficient medication is absorbed through the stomach and one may wind up a vegetable.
- All of this is so unnecessary because, with the proper number of pills, a simple injection, or inhaling carbon monoxide or nitrous oxide, one can peacefully and painlessly die.
- When one chooses to die, shouldn't one have the right to do so in the presence of friends and loved ones? In more than half the states (and the number is growing), the law says no. If you invite friends or loved ones to be there, you put them at risk of being charged with "assisted suicide," "accessory to suicide," or even murder (first degree murder in at least two states). So many suicide notes contain messages such as, "I'm so sorry we couldn't be together at the end, but I did not want to endanger you. I thought this way was best."
- Note that I haven't said a word about motivation. One's motivation to commit suicide is not the issue here. What is at issue is the fundamental right to make decisions about one's own life. Without government intervention.
- Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of emotional depression. Our culture's taboo against suicide often keeps people who are thinking about suicide from talking about it. By talking about it, people can often get the emotional and psychological support they need to see them through a rough time. When people are afraid to talk about it, the pressures can increase to the point that they actually do something about it. If suicide itself were not forced to beby lawsuch a lonely activity, we might have fewer suicides. Even if we did not, however, there is no reason for laws that make one's last moments painful and lonely.
- Nowhere is the concept of assisted suicide and the cruelty of making it illegal more pronounced than when individuals are unable to take their own lives. People in advanced stages of life-threatening illness, for example, sometimes either don't have the use of their limbs or are unable to gather the proper drugs or paraphernalia by which they might deliver themselves. Here, suicide is only available through assistance. By filling out the proper legal documents ahead of time, people can clearly indicate the point of deterioration after which they choose to no longer live. When this point is reached, death then becomes a medical procedure.
- We accept the fact that if one makes a living will, his or her life will not be artificially extended through the use of life support systems. Once the life support systems are removed (an accepted medical procedure), have you considered what death might be like for that person? To find out, exhale completely and do not take your next breath while you continue reading. (Please try this.) If one is taken off artificial respiration, he or she no longer has the ability to inhale. Death may come "within a matter of minutes," but what are those minutes like? "Well, they'll be given painkilling medications, won't they?" To the degree prescribed by law, yes. These are, however, sometimes woefully inadequate. To take a breath (as you probably notice if you are attempting the experiment) is a powerful biologic imperative. The lack of oxygen can sometimes rouse one from the effects of limited legal dosages of medication. This torture may go on for days. One might be able to rouse oneself to, say, two breaths per minute. Or, one's lungs may be filling up with fluids in what the doctors acknowledge will be the inevitable form of death. Here, one is permitted to slowly drown. If intravenous feeding tubes (medically considered a form of life support) are removed, one dies of dehydration; this while one is starving to death.
People who take part in the "death watch," in hospitals when the end is near, often ask the doctors, "Isn't there something you can give [him or her]?" The answer: no. Certainly not by law. That some hospital personnel quietly give larger doses of painkilling medication than legally permitted is a well-known and generally accepted medical fact. The administration of these drugs, of course, must be kept absolutely confidential. The family, then, cannot know the moment of death. (In fact, such medical mercies are usually performed when no one is present.)
The desire to be with loved ones when they die is a strong one. Once a person who is clearly dying has indicated his or her desire to die after a certain point of deterioration, why should being with that person for the final moments be a matter of chance? The dayssometimes weeksof waiting around hospitals twenty-four hours a day, being afraid to leave even for a moment because that might be when the loved one dies, are an unnecessary torture on friends and relatives.
As Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in her suicide note:
Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or "broken heart" is excuse for cutting off one's life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.
- Again, I am not discussing the ethics of when others decide your life is over, but the rights you yourself have to determine when you no longer want to live. If individualsfor spiritual, religious, or any other reasonschoose to hang on until God or nature determines their last breath, they certainly have that right. What I am speaking of here is abolishing laws that prohibit people from taking their own lives, either with or without the assistance of others.
- Life is a precious possession. As with all of our possessions, how we use, manage, and eventually say good-bye to life is our own business, not the law's.
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Copyright © 1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press