Relativism is the bane of our times, although it is still selectively applied. We tell teenagers to try not to have sexual intercourse, but if you do—which we know you will—then please use a condom. Yet, we still know how to be unequivocal in some areas: We tell kids, “Don’t smoke,!”, not, “Don’t, smoke—but if you do, only use filter-tipped cigarettes,” because we know that if we did that it would only result in a lot of tobacco smoke being inhaled.
It seems to me that well meaning people are being seduced into an equivalent stance on suicide, and it would just result in more suicides. Case in point is the column by Atlanta Journal Constitution pundit Jay Bookman, who in supposedly opposing the Forced Exit Network defendants, has fallen for their basic premise that bad health or disability can justify society facilitating suicide in some cases. From his column:
[S]o do my inalienable rights as a human being extend to the right to self-destruction? If my life is truly my own, shouldn’t I be able to end it as I see fit? Personally, I think the answer is almost always no. Societal consensus, backed by medical research and experience, dictates that a person in decent physical health who wants to commit suicide is by definition mentally ill—no fully sane person would make such a decision.
But how far does that line of reasoning extend? As a person’s physical health declines, that once-bright line begins to blur for many of us. During the Terri Schiavo controversy, for example, I stumbled across the case of David Mack, a Milwaukee police officer who had been shot in the line of duty and lapsed into a vegetative state. Twenty months later, Mack miraculously returned to consciousness only to be horrified at his predicament. The shooting had left him totally paralyzed; he could communicate only by moving his eyes across a spelling board. He told his wife that he wished the bullet had killed him. He begged for a lethal injection or for feedings to stop. Using the spelling board, he would send the same message over and over: “I D-O-N-T W-A-N-T T-O L-I-V-E L-I-K-E T-H-I-S A-N-Y-M-O-R-E.”
Of course, it never occurs to Bookman that Mack, who I don’t know about, might one day change his mind. And in that assumption, we see vividly why the disability rights movement is so alarmed by assisted suicide advocacy.
Bookman exhibits the very discriminatory attitudes that could result in disabled people being killed, for by explicitly agreeing that life as a quadriplegic is so bad that it takes suicide ideation out of the “mentally ill” category and into the rational category, he has stated that their lives are not worth saving. Yet medical research actually shows that people who become quadriplegic, if given a chance and proper support services, exhibit no greater levels of depression than the general population five years post injury.
If we say some suicides are worth doing, and others worth preventing, we are both sending a message of abandonment to those we agree should be helped, and making it impossible to convincingly tell others that they shouldn’t kill themselves, since by definition anyone who is suicidal finds life unbearable. Moreover, people with mental illnesses often suffer far more anguish than the categories for whom Bookman would apparently permit facilitation—which is precisely why both Switzerland and the Netherlands permit assisted suicide for the mentally ill who are otherwise healthy and able bodied.
Once we agree that society should facilitate the suicides of some people, suicide prevention as an effective intervention is effectively over. Bookman’s column is the equivalent of telling teenagers not to smoke, but if they do, to use filter cigarettes.