Suicide and the ‘New Prohibitionists’
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 heavy attack.
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 rational choice.
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 unacceptable.
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 they make.
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 prevention agendas.
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry and former coordinator of the First Amendment Task Force.