The Final Freedom
Suicide and the ‘New Prohibitionists’
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 2.
This issue’s special section on physician-assisted
suicide puts me in mind of a larger issue: suicide, period. While suicide has
never been exactly popular, a new assault on our right to suicide is
brewing. It’s something secular humanists ought to resist.
Not long ago, the right to suicide and the right to
assisted suicide seemed a single issue. Do individuals’ lives belong to God,
society, or themselves? For most humanists the answer was obvious. People own
their lives; self-determination is a primary value. Therefore, society should
get out of the way of rational suicides, letting them pursue their urgently held
desires even unto death. We might not approve of their reasons, but what of
that? It is they, not we, who choose to expend their highest asset. As E. M.
Cioran observed, “Taking one’s life is sufficiently impressive to forestall
any petty hunt for motives.” 1
This reflects a centuries-old emancipatory current in
Western thought, roughly coeval with Renaissance humanism, which freed
individuals from various social and ecclesiastical controls. Generations ago,
your parents told you how you’d earn your living and whom you’d marry (until
death, however miserably). Priests told you what to worship. Kings told you what
to think. Your life belonged to God or the state; woe to any who dared resolve
that they had lived enough. Suicide was a crime akin to poaching. There being no
way to punish successful perpetrators, society could only lard on opprobrium,
heightening the prospective cost to a suicide’s survivors.
Fast forward: today people choose their careers, their
mates, change their religious views and their politics, and can think for
themselves (a right too seldom exercised, but I digress). One archaic yoke
remains: the conviction that whoever owns your life, it’s not you.
Hence suicide remains under that umbra of social denunciation from which
divorce—or, say, marrying outside your social class—has but recently
emerged. The prohibition of suicide may be the last of the ancien régime’s
curbs on self-determination.
That’s why some humanist reformers defended suicide and
euthanasia in the same breath. If your life is yours, then it is no one else’s
business if you choose to discontinue having experiences. If others yearn to
offer relief to sufferers unable to end their own lives, there’s no moral
reason why they shouldn’t.
The debate over physician-assisted suicide has since moved
to safer territory. Centering on issues such as how much informed consent is
enough or the role of pain management, it avoids the prickly question of
suicide’s licitness. With few advocates to protect it, the right of humans to
dispose of the lives they own—the right to suicide as such—faces
Today’s “New Prohibitionists” cloak themselves in
science, arguing that all suicides result from potentially preventable chemical
imbalances in the brain. In other words, the suicidal deserve no rights because
they’re crazy by definition. When science runs out, critics focus on the agony
of those the suicide leaves behind.
Scientific American is not above publishing the odd
article with a social or political agenda, but until a February 2003 article on
suicide, I don’t recall it throwing an in-house project to a staff editor with
a personal axe to grind. Carol Ezzell begins her article “Why? The
Neuroscience of Suicide” as follows:
In 1994, two days after returning from a
happy family vacation, my 57-year-old mother put the muzzle of a handgun to
her left breast and fired, drilling a neat and lethal hole through her
heart—and, metaphorically, through our family’s as well.
Well, you know where she stands. After more autobiography,
Ezzell ably summarizes current findings about the brain structures and
neurochemistry of suicides.2 But her subtext is
clear: Because suicide is always the choice of a diseased mind, society must do
everything possible to prevent it. Some bright day neuroscience may do away with
suicide, after which unhinged self-murderers will never again drill metaphorical
holes through their family’s hearts.
Ezzell never considers that the special anguish suicide
carries for survivors is fueled primarily by the way our culture demonizes it.
Less judgmental attitudes might empower loved ones to make peace more readily
with a suicide’s decision. Nor does she consider that suicide is sometimes a
I have something in common with Carol Ezzell. My mother
suicided, too, exhausted by years of ill health that required only intermittent
hospitalization but promised worse to come. She didn’t qualify for
physician-assisted suicide, but in retrospect her decision to end her life when
she did was eminently rational. I regret only that she had to be so damned
furtive about it, killing herself in a needlessly brutal way and without giving
most who loved her an opportunity to share good-byes. Why? Because society not
only reviles suicide, it rescinds the autonomy and freedom of most persons known
to be considering it.
Ezzell portrays all suicides in a scientistic,
pathologizing way that would only make that situation worse. The same tone
pervades much rhetoric against physician-assisted suicide. No doubt some
individuals do kill themselves because of clinical depression or other
potentially treatable conditions. No doubt some who opt for physician-assisted
suicide might choose otherwise with better pain control. But there’s no
grounds for supposing that all suicides spring from pathological causes. If
suicide can ever be a rational choice, then the argument from
self-determination still carries weight. And the wholesale preemptive
curtailment of personal liberties in the name of suicide prevention should be
What’s really in play here is the old dogma that
individuals don’t own their own lives. Physician-assisted suicide is but part
of the issue. If we trust our fellow humans to choose their occupations, their
significant others, their political persuasions, and their stances on religion,
we should also defend their right to dispose of their most valuable
possessions—their lives—even if disposing of life is precisely the choice
1. E.M. Cioran, tr. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston,
On the Heights of Despair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 56.
2. Carol Ezzell, “Why? The Neuroscience
of Suicide,” Scientific American, Feb. 2003, pp. 44–51. Not surprisingly,
all of the other organizations mentioned in Ezzell’s notes have suicide
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry and former
coordinator of the First Amendment Task Force.