In its October/November 2007 issue, Free Inquiry published a special section titled “Dealing with Dying.” Nineteen articles, most of them personal accounts by FI subscribers, explored various aspects of death and dying from the viewpoints of loved ones, sufferers, and a few who had cheated death. Response to the feature was overwhelming; in a departure from FI’s usual policy, the entire section was posted online and expanded with seven additional articles for which there hadn’t been room in the print edition. (It’s still viewable here.)
More than a year ago, FI began soliciting reader essays for a follow-up feature, which is now presented in the following pages. (As with “Dealing with Dying,” the entire text will be available online at secularhumanism.org.) For the current feature, we chose a broader focus, seeking uniquely nonreligious perspectives on serious or chronic illness, in addition to further reflections on death and dying. Some contributors to our 2007 feature reported feeling constrained by our preference for shorter essays, and so in this section a small number of contributors have been given the opportunity to express themselves at somewhat greater length.
Secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers approach these matters from a singular range of perspectives. In contrast to believers in most traditional faiths, we are denied the false if sometimes powerfully consoling solace of prayer. We cannot blunt our outrage at being torn from savoring our health and vigor by reflecting that it’s part of God’s plan or that any injustice we suffer can be recompensed in the afterlife. We cannot salve our pain by focusing on its tininess compared to the eternal significance we imagine our lives to possess as the handiwork of a deity. On the other hand, we are unfettered by the fear that our misery is deserved punishment for sin. We are spared the archaic constraints that descend from believing we do not own our lives but rather hold them in trust at the almighty’s sufferance. We are under no command to mistake pointless suffering for heroism or to impose it on others as a badge of our own righteousness.
Our ten reader essays are arranged approximately from darkest to lightest, beginning with frank explorations of futility and despair and ending with stories of unexpected recovery or of death’s impact offset (at least in part) by the discovery of unexpected resources of hope and encouragement.
Different as these essays are from one another, several of them visit one particular theme with stunning intensity: the immorality, the sheer wrongness, of a health-care system that all too often denies suffering patients the capacity to end their lives on their terms and by the means they choose. It is not at all surprising that this idea recurs; some readers may be taken as aback as I was by the force, sometimes the rage, with which it finds expression.
As with the 2007 feature, reader essays are preceded by a small number of tone-setting articles by familiar FI contributors.
In this introduction, I will restrict myself to little more than setting the tone. Longtime readers know that I have long advocated for euthanasia, including but not limited to physician-assisted suicide, and for the recognition of suicide as a fundamental human right. I won’t beat those drums again here any more than I already have; in any case, there is little I could add to the aching power of the reader essays when they touch upon this matter.
Ronald A. Lindsay—CEO of the Council for Secular Humanism and that most anomalous combination, a philosopher and an attorney—examines the moral and legal implications of hastening death to end suffering. He stakes out what might be considered a centrist reform agenda, a program I suspect almost all humanists can embrace even if some of them would chart a more radical course, and he buttresses it with elegant legal and philosophical arguments.
Jennifer Michael Hecht’s essay “You’ve No Right” will be more controversial, I expect. Writing with passion, she argues against a right to suicide. Audaciously, she seeks to erect a wholly secular replacement for the old metaphysical view of each human life as effectively infinite in value. She contends that the human community has a stake in your life and mine that should dissuade any of us from viewing our selves purely as private property. I invite readers to enliven our letters column with their views pro and con on this remarkable essay.