October 18, 2009

Can't Be "Private, But"

Justin Katz

A comment from Joe Bernstein, to yesterday's post on assisted suicide, points us toward a deeper conversation:

I am pro-life on the issue of abortion, but on this I believe that if someone with all their mental faculties intact makes a decision to commit suicide due to a hopeless, painful, or tortuous medical situation it is not a crime for someone else with the correct credentials to help them make sure they go out with the least discomfort to themselves and the least trauma to their loved ones.

Sticking a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger is a surefire way to accomplish suicide, but not everyone can do it, and it leaves a scene families will never be able to put out of their minds.
I sat with my grandmother who lived with us, and my father many years later as they declined in severe pain due to terminal cancer-neither considered suicide, in one case due to religious belief, and in the other case, just the opposite.

I agree with Patrick here. What I don't want to see is the demonic social engineers that infest this administration set up a bureaucracy for this kind of thing. It is a private matter.

The problem is that, once you introduce restrictions such as judging mental faculties and credentialing assistants, the matter is no longer private, strictly speaking. Indeed, it is the argument of the Wesley Smith essay to which I linked that assisted-suicide ideologues are not inclined to dwell very long, on an individual basis, determining whether somebody is mentally fit to enlist their services, and they're certainly not inclined to report questionable cases to the authorities.

Moreover, the "private matter" boundary is anything but an impermeable barrier. Take this story as allegory:

The case came to the attention of Minnesota authorities in March 2008 when an anti-suicide activist in Britain alerted them that someone in the state was using the Internet to manipulate people into killing themselves.

Last May, a Minnesota task force on Internet crimes searched Melchert-Dinkel's computer and found a Web chat between him and the young Canadian woman describing the best way to tie knots. In their search warrant, investigators said Melchert-Dinkel "admitted he has asked persons to watch their suicide via webcam but has not done so." ...

The report also said Melchert-Dinkel checked himself into a hospital in January. A nurse's assessment said he had a "suicide fetish" and had formed suicide pacts online that he didn't intend to carry out.

Few people are as overtly demented as Melchert-Dinkel, of course, but if we're going to determine who is or is not fit to kill themselves, we're also going to have to determine who is or is not fit to make that judgment and to assist. Either determination ultimately draws arbitrary, debatable lines that will not withstand the human slide toward tragedy that is nigh upon inevitable when our society pushes "compassion" in advance of the tragic.

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The last night my father was alive(he was on home hospice care)the pain was so bad that even the oral Dilaudid I gave him didn't touch it.I had to call for a transport to the hospital where they loaed him up on Toridol and IV morphine which thankfully let him sleep.The next day the hospital called to say he was bleeding out internally-he had made a living will specifying in such a case to refuse anything but pain meds-I told the doctor to utilize the living will and let hiom go as long as they gave him enough pain meds.he was gone before I could get there,but it was go the best.
I sure hope you aren't going to tell me you have a problem with living wills,because I think you should be able to trust your own family.
I respect your view on assisted suicide,but I am pretty much a firm believer in what I stated.Anyhting man invents or allows can be abused if you think about it.

Posted by: joe bernstein at October 18, 2009 1:48 PM

I have noticed that Hospice workers are very clear about how much home administered pain medication it will take to kill the patient. That is all I care to say about that.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 18, 2009 7:49 PM

Justin, you're going to use one wack-job example to show that we shouldn't allow assisted suicide?

While I don't necessarily agree, I understand your point of view on abortion. You're opposed to someone killing someone else who had no say in the matter. Here, somone is merely helping someone kill themselves, who has total say in the matter.

I too am opposed to suicide, but if someone else wants to do it, that's fine by me.

Posted by: Patrick at October 18, 2009 9:11 PM

Well, I said to take the whack job as "allegory," not as evidence. The point is that suicide is either a private matter or we should regulate who can assist with it. If we were to allow people to assist with it, we must regulate who can do so.

I'm not inclined to take a hard line against the suicidal. (I'm not sure how one would even do that, except by making attempts punishable in a criminal way or confiscating inheritances and such, all of which I would oppose.) But to license doctors or other "caregivers" to prescribe death is antithetical to their mission and corrosive of our understanding of life's value.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2009 9:25 PM

This is one of those difficult times. We don't wish for government to control morality, but sometimes we do.

When we attempt to legislate it, we simply open the can of worms wider. Take Roe v. Wade, which essentially decided that a "woman's body is her own", meaning abortion is a private matter. Well, where does that lead us? I suggest it leads to more confusion. If her body is "her own", why can't she put drugs in it? For that matter, why can't she terminate its existence if she wishes?

These are not legal questions, they are moral questions. Jefferson is supposed to have said "we have a Constitution suitable for a Christian nation and no other". I have always understood this to mean that many matters were not touched on because they were moral questions, rather than legal questions. Suicide became illegal when the was no distinction between the church's views and the legal system. I don't know of any American states which ever took the draconian views of Europe, such as confiscation of estates.

I would not wish to be the one to determine when "assisting in a suicide" is, or is not, murder.

The example I always ponder is pretty much as follows. If one partner to a marriage is severely depressed and considering suicide, should the other partner who has tired of the prolonged depressive behavior assist? If not, why not? If not, where should the line on illness be drawn? Must the disease be incurable, or simply more than the individual cares to bear? If it is an individual "right", why should disease even be conbsidered?

You can be sure such questions will arise.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 18, 2009 9:51 PM


There's a world of difference between assisting with suicide and declining to force treatment on people whose bodies are failing them.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 18, 2009 9:59 PM

"But to license doctors or other "caregivers" to prescribe death is antithetical to their mission and corrosive of our understanding of life's value."

Is it? Are you talking about the Hippocratic Oath? "to do no harm"? I would say that allowing someone in such a state to end their own pain and suffering is the opposite of doing harm. It is doing exactly what they took an oath to do, help the person no longer feel pain and suffering, at that person's own choice. Keep in mind that no one who assists ever pushes the button themselves. That's why the word "suicide" is still included.

Posted by: Patrick at October 19, 2009 8:02 AM

Patrick writes:

" Keep in mind that no one who assists ever pushes the button themselves. That's why the word "suicide" is still included."

That sort of flies in the face of our legal system. Consider the "felony murder rule". If you drive the car in a bank robbery where someone is killed, you're up for murder. Not pulling the trigger does not confer absolution. There is also the "but for" rule. "But for" the person assisting, would it have happened?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 19, 2009 9:29 AM

You can take the "but for" argument to very absurd extremes. If someone with late-stages of ALS has just enough strength to push a button with a finger, but someone else sets it up for them, that person should never be tried for murder. In my opinion.

Quick question, why do we think it's humane to put animals "out of their misery, end their suffering", but we morally object to helping a human do the same thing to themselves? I'm not saying someone else inject a human, I'm saying to set up an environment where the human can do it to themselves. A dog is better than a human in this case?

Posted by: Patrick at October 19, 2009 11:55 AM

Patrick writes:
Quick question, why do we think it's humane to put animals "out of their misery, end their suffering", but we morally object to helping a human do the same thing to themselves?

It is that old time religion. Animals didn't "souls" (I still think all dogs go to heaven). Humans did have "souls". Since life was a gift of God, short circuiting his plans was s sin. This was not a concern for animals, so "putting it out of its misery" was OK. Not much could be done for them anyway.

Now that something can be done for animals, "putting them out of their misery" is no longer as common as it was.

Since morality develops slowly, it also changes slowly (unless the Supreme Court speeds it up). Since, in the main, morals derive from religion the courts feel free to disregard them.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 19, 2009 1:20 PM
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