From Belgium comes news that a mentally disturbed prisoner is to be granted government help in committing suicide. A typically shallow ethical debate ensued — isn’t assisted suicide for a prisoner a bit too close to capital punishment? — before the trump card of individual autonomy was played. “Regardless, he’s a human being,” said Jacqueline Herremans, the head of Belgium’s right-to-die association, “a human being who has the right to demand euthanasia.”
This is the culmination of a certain line of moral reasoning: the human right to cease to be a human being.
If your overriding values are individual autonomy and choice, this is an easy case. In fact, all cases, however individually, are theoretically easy. A mentally ill criminal — or a lonely senior or a depressed teenager — has every right to take his or her own life. It is just another profound, self-determining decision, like marriage or retirement. Retirement from an existence one finds unbearable.
But even the Belgians don’t really believe this. They surround assisted suicide with legal qualifications. The prisoner in this case apparently had an incurable mental disorder, which Belgium’s justice minister cited as the reason for state action in putting him to death. Assisted suicide is generally available to Belgians in cases of serious physical and (more recently) mental illness. According to The Associated Press, 1,800 Belgians took advantage of the offer last year, an increase of 400 from the previous year. Causes included dementia, cancer and psychosis. Belgium is simply extending this right to prisoners.
This is justified by an ideology of choice. But the determination of certain societal classes that are helped in committing suicide is hard to separate from a judgment about the worth of those classes. The right to suicide adheres, in this case, not to all human beings but to sick and apparently flawed human beings. And such a “right” begins to look more and more like an expectation. A mentally or physically ill person can be killed, in the end, because they have an illness. A qualification can slide into a justification. This is a particularly powerful social message since people with cancer or severe depression sometimes feel worthless or like burdens on their families. It is pitifully easy to make them, with an offer of help, into instruments of their own execution.
All of us, particularly those who face cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s or other gnawing horrors, can imagine circumstances in which the extension of life does not seem to serve the cause of life. Our “excessive tolerance” of suicide, said sociologist Emile Durkheim, “is due to the fact that, since the state of mind from which it springs is a general one, we cannot condemn it without condemning ourselves.” We are accused by our own darkest thoughts.
But when a friend takes his or her own life — a cause of death now more common in America than traffic fatalities — it does not seem like a choice. It seems like the end of all possibility of choice. It doesn’t seem like freedom; it seems like slavery to a single moment of despair. Our immediate response is: I wish I had known his night was so dark. I might have done more.
Even in cases of lingering suffering, many of us have known people who are dying to give tremendous, life-affirming gifts — words of encouragement, examples of fortitude and faith — to those who remain. Most of us will eventually need such models. “He who was living is now dead,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “We who were living are now dying. With a little patience.”
The hardest cases — the hopeless coma, the stroke that steals most of a brain’s function — remain hard. But the first tendency of our society should mirror our best instincts as human beings: to support those with serious physical and mental illness. To care for those in dark moments. And not to send a social message, through a law and a doctor with a final IV, that those who feel fragile and useless are right to think so.
Whatever modern political theories may claim, human life has a value greater than autonomy and choice. That value is not absolute, as is shown in war, criminal justice and self-defense. But the value of life is high, and particularly demonstrated by the manner in which a society views and treats the vulnerable.
There is no human right to forfeit all our rights. And our dignity exists even when we cease to see it.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.