essay on assisted suicide

April, 1995
Throughout most of human history, suicide has been looked upon as a negative action. The legal treatment of suicide can be traced through most of human history, and it has roots in cultural, religious and pragmatic beliefs about human life, and the relationship between the individual and the state. I will argue that as humans, we have a fundamental right to control our own lives, and that control includes deciding whether to live or die. That decision can include one's family, and include trained medical professionals to assist when asked. The decision to end ones life should not be illegal, nor should requesting, receiving or giving assistance to end another persons life, understanding that the decision was undeniably and unmistakably made by the person wanting to die. I will show this by examining the current status of the laws regarding suicide and doctor assisted suicide, and the constitutional treatment of the same.

Our society, based upon the assumption that suicide is not a rational choice, has made every effort to prevent and discourage the choice to end one's life. As we debate about the legality of assisted suicide and euthanasia, we are challenging those long held assumptions by suggesting that in some cases, society should shift from prevention to toleration or assistance.

Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States (When Death Is Sought, p. 9). Because of the large number of people who decide to end their own lives, many studies have been done as to who these people are, and what drives them to make that choice. I feel that that is irrelevant to my argument. While every effort should be made to help a person who wants to commit suicide to find a solution to the problem that would result in life, rather than death, the final decision is theirs. That decision is a private one, and the state has no business nor any interest in that decision.

The Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, 1972, decided that abortion was a private choice, and one which the state could not interfere in unless there was a compelling reason. In simpler terms, if a woman wants to abort her fetus, that is her private right, and in most cases, the state does not have a compelling interest to prevent that. I believe that if a person wants to abort their life, then that is a private right as well.

The argument for the legality of assisted suicide is often centered around seriously ill patients. Cancer patients have twice the risk of suicide than the whole population. Almost all patients who receive a cancer diagnosis carry a belief that says, "I won't die in pain from cancer - I'll kill myself first." Many have hidden supplies of drugs for this purpose, but for
most patients, the time never comes because life becomes more precious as natural death, approaches (When Death Is Sought, p. 11).

People with AIDS are, according to some studies, as much as 36% more likely to commit suicide than the population as a whole (Living With AIDS, p. 39). Other studies show that AIDS patients who commit suicide tend to act within nine months of receiving the AIDS positive diagnosis (Living With AIDS, p. 42).

The state of New York Task Force on Life and the Law, formed by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1985, reported in a May 26, 1994 press release that:
"The Task Force concludes that legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia, or mercy killing, would be profoundly dangerous for many patients. This is particularly true in light of the widespread address pain and depression adequately -- treatable conditions that cause suffering and most often lead patients to think about suicide."
This argument - that we should treat the causes of the desire to end one's life rather than assisting in any way with the actual ending of the life, is a popular one. It is true about abortion also, though. There are many ways to treat the cause of the unwanted pregnancy, which we strongly promote through sex education and widely available contraception, but we also recognize the right of the woman to make a decision about her own life. I believe this should be equally true about the fate of one's own life.

Most state law defines four types of practices that can end a person's life: The withdrawal and withholding of life-sustaining treatment; suicide; assistance to commit suicide; and active euthanasia (When Death Is Sought, p. 14). The laws governing each of these practices reflects a judgment regarding the balance between an individual's right to privacy and the interest of the state. Most states accept that a patient has a right to accept or reject medical treatment, including life sustaining and life prolonging treatments, through a legal document called a living will (When Death Is Sought, p. 34).

Thirty-two states have made assisting a suicide a statutory offense. In the remaining eighteen states, those who assist may be subject to prosecution for murder or manslaughter. In the wake of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's acts of suicide assistance, several states have specifically outlawed assisted suicide. Few cases of assisted suicide are actually prosecuted, because of the public sympathy and difficulty of securing an indictment and conviction. (When Death Is Sought, p. 5).

Common law has historically protected an individual's right to decide about medical treatment. In Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, the United States Supreme Court decided that the right to refuse treatment is a protected "liberty interest" under the due process clause. The ACLU has argued, specifically in the Kevorkian case, that laws banning assisted suicide and suicide in general violates the rights of the terminally ill patients who wish to die. (ACLU Documentation on Kevorkian, p. 2).

The key to legalizing suicide and assisted suicide is to classify decisions about ones own life a fundamental right, meaning that those laws regarding suicide would be subject to strict scrutiny. Supporters argue that the individual's right to self-determination encompasses all decisions concerning the timing and manner of death. The right to assisted suicide is implicit in the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, because both practices seek to give individuals "control over when they die, where they die and their physical and mental state at the time of their death."

The current law, however, makes a distinction between passive and active killing, saying that passive killing (refusal of treatment) is more moral than active killing (assisting in suicide). I disagree. Hunger strikes are passive suicide, because they withhold life sustaining nutrients. Shooting oneself is active suicide. It is not the job of the government to decide for me which is more moral.

Our government does not have the responsibility of protecting the people from themselves. It is a fundamental right of ours, not defined by the Constitution but by our existence, to decide what is best for our bodies. This includes what to put in our bodies, how to live, and whether to live at all. This fundamental freedom should also include where, how and why to die, and if we choose to die with the comforting aid of a medical professional or our family, why should that be illegal? The state does not have a compelling interest in keeping us alive. We will all die eventually, by various means, and it is impossible for the government to prevent people from taking their own lives. Instead, they should encourage treatment where possible, and medical assistance for those people, such as terminally ill patients, who choose to end their life while they have some sense of dignity and control over the circumstances.
American Civil Liberties Union Documentation on Dr. Jack Kevorkian. ACLU, 1995.
Landow, Joseph. Living With AIDS. Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1993.
When Death Is Sought. Author unknown. ND.

Popular posts from this blog

power elite vs pluralist explanation models

big 4 vs. law firm comparison from an industry perspective

california bar exam primer