Doctor with Patient

Brittany Maynard’s decision to take her own life to end her suffering, rather than wait for her aggressive brain tumor to kill her, has prompted a national debate about assisted suicide laws (also called right-to-die or “death with dignity” laws), such as the law in Oregon under which Maynard acted.

As I’ve argued, individuals with terminal illnesses or devastating trauma have a moral right to decide for themselves whether to continue living or to end their suffering. In opposition to that right, religious conservatives argue, in essence, that individuals in such circumstances have a duty to suffer, whether for “God” or for other people (see “The Pope’s Sin and Brittany Maynard’s Choice to Die” and “Conservatives’ Collectivist Case Against Assisted Suicide”).

Here, I’d like to address several further claims about assisted suicide and suicide in general. The following are summaries of some arguments I’ve heard, along with my replies.

“Ending your own life isn’t natural; therefore, you shouldn’t do it.”

Alan Rastrelli of Colorado, “a Catholic deacon who practices palliative medicine,” made this claim (among others), but his argument is silly. By the same standard, all drugs, all medical devices, and all surgeries are also “unnatural.” Should we stop using those things?

“If assisted suicide were legal, some people would be coerced to kill themselves.”

This concern was mentioned in a story and a follow-up by 9News. But obviously no one legally or morally may force someone to kill himself; doing so is murder and should be treated accordingly. And, obviously, assisted suicide laws apply only to consenting adults, not to those incapable of consent.

“If assisted suicide were legal, some people would be pressured to kill themselves.”

As 9News reports, Anita Cameron, an advocate for the disabled, condemned assisted suicide laws on the grounds that, under such laws, people might kill themselves because of feelings of guilt: “As your condition progresses, [and] you require more care or more services, you are more apt to feel, I don’t want to be a burden to my family.” As 9News summarizes, a related concern is “that people with disabilities and the elderly, with worsening conditions, may be pressured into seeking life-ending medication even if they do not really want to die.”

But to outlaw assisted suicide on such grounds is to violate the individual’s right to make his own choices because some people might be swayed by feelings of guilt or by social pressure. What of the individual who has no worries about medical bills, who is no burden to anyone (or who may not even have a family), who makes his own decisions by his own independent thinking, and who rationally decides it is time to end his suffering?

Most people’s family and friends are enormously supportive and loving during a medical crisis. Regarding those few whose family or “friends” viciously urge them to die, those patients are free to kick their family and “friends” out of their homes or hospital rooms.

Health providers, too, may take precautions to ensure that a patient is not harangued by vicious family and “friends.” (The Oregon law provides various safeguards against such problems, as 9News reports.)

“If assisted suicide were legal, insurance companies would stop covering health care for some people.”

Cameron expressed this concern as well. But insurance properly is bound by contract law, so an insurance company could not decline payment for health care because of the existence of an assisted suicide law. Rather, coverage would be determined by the terms of the individual’s policy.

Of course, given that government now substantially controls health insurance, government might outlaw certain insurance policies (as it has done in some cases), change the terms of insurance after the fact, and use taxes and regulations to influence the behavior of insurers. But those are dangers regardless of assisted suicide laws, and the proper solution to such dangers is to remove all such government controls.

“Many people choose to wait for death to take them, and that’s the right thing to do.”

This is the main theme of articles for the Daily Signal by Nadin Naumann and Katrina Trinko. But the fact that people have a right to seek assistance in dying does not imply that any individual must do so. An individual’s life belongs to him, and he is the only one who can properly make such a decision.

Many people with terminal illnesses choose to stay around as long as they can, despite the suffering they face. (The trauma of this process often is substantially mitigated by pain-relieving drugs.) But the fact that some people choose not to take their own lives, does not imply that government should forcibly prevent others from seeking assistance in doing so.

“If assisted suicide should be legal for people with severe health problems, logically, it should be legal for all consenting adults.”

A reader suggested this line of argument in a Facebook comment—and he is correct. Morally, government may not punish any person for seeking to commit suicide, nor may it punish any doctor, drug seller, or other party who aids a consenting adult in committing suicide.

A key qualifier here is “consenting.” It is possible for an adult to be in a mental state in which rational consent is impossible for him. And those directly involved in assisting someone in the process of ending his life have a moral responsibility and should have a legal responsibility to engage in due diligence to ensure that the person is of sound mind to make such a decision.

Of course, government may not properly hold third parties legally liable for inadvertently selling to a person an item that he uses to commit suicide. Otherwise, not only sellers of various drugs, but sellers of guns, rope, automobiles, gasoline, and myriad other items would be unjustly prosecuted.

Part of the broader problem is that government now forbids people to buy various drugs unless they first obtain permission (a prescription) from a doctor. Such laws require doctors to decide whether a person “needs” a given drug, and these laws violate an individual’s moral right to decide for himself which drugs to seek and use. If government repealed the prescription laws—as it should—assisted suicide laws would be largely beside the point, as people would be free to seek drugs with which to commit suicide without government interference.

Of course, the fact that assisted suicide should be legal for all consenting adults does not imply that suicide is moral for all consenting adults. In a given case, a consenting adult might commit suicide (whether or not it is legal) as a result of irrationality. (An individual can have a rational faculty sufficient for consent, without thereby thinking rationally in any given area.) But the proper purpose of government is not to prevent consenting adults from acting irrationally when they do not violate others’ rights; the only proper purpose of government is to ban the initiation of physical force in all of its variants and thereby to protect people’s rights.

“Assisted suicide laws promote a ‘culture of death.’”

Daniel Payne makes this claim in an article for the Federalist. Although the primary point of legalizing assisted suicide is to stop government from punishing people for offering assistance to individuals with terminal illnesses or the like who wish to end their own lives, to equate that practice with a “culture of death” is to drop all context of the suffering that such individuals face.

An individual’s life belongs to him, and he is properly the one to decide whether or when his suffering has reached a point of being unbearable. Payne would deny the individual’s right to seek assistance in taking his life, thereby forcing him to continue “living” in unbearable suffering against his will. Contra Payne, individuals have a moral right to commit suicide and to seek assistance in doing so; they do not have a duty to suffer. No one’s life belongs to Daniel Payne, except his own.

Respecting an individual’s right to decide whether to take his own life—and whether to seek assistance in doing so—is properly regarded as the pro-life position. It is the only position that honors the fact that an individual’s life belongs to him, not to anyone else. And it is the only position that recognizes an individual’s moral right to decide (with a sound mind) what the final moments of his life will be like, and in what final state he will contemplate his life.

If an individual wishes to end his life on his own terms, rather than slide into unspeakable pain or mental derangement, that is properly his choice—and, if he makes that choice, it is, however tragic his circumstances, one by which as his final act he affirms the value of his life.


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