Back in 1991, I received an invitation to a party. My elderly friend Frances wanted to die. Her plan, she said, was to hold a life celebration with her closest friends: We would hold her hand, kiss her cheek, and tell her how much she meant to us—as she expressed her love for us. Then she would take an overdose of pills and embark upon what she called her “final passage.”
Every one of her friends refused to go along with this. Instead, we held an intervention: We love you, we told Frances, but that doesn’t mean we will support you in whatever you decide. We will do everything in our power to help you get through the night, but we will not participate in extinguishing your light.
With zero validation for her suicide, Frances changed her mind. In fact, she soon rebounded from her depression and reengaged in life for more than a year, even going to court to have her alimony restored, which raised her mood for months.
Eventually, as her health began to worsen, the dark magnet of self-destruction reasserted its deadly attraction. By this time I had moved from Los Angeles, where Frances lived, to San Francisco. One night, I received a call from her best friend telling me that Frances was again threatening suicide. As before, her social circle intervened. With none of her friends in support (she was estranged from her son), she called my mother to say that, thanks to a “divine intervention,” she was no longer planning to take her life.
We all breathed a deep sigh of relief. But Frances was lying. On her seventy-sixth birthday, she paid a cousin $5,000 to attend her suicide at a hotel.
Frances’s death profoundly affected my life. I later discovered that she had been influenced by the literature of the Hemlock Society (now called Compassion and Choices), which gave people moral permission to kill themselves and taught them how to do it. Outraged, I penned my first anti-euthanasia piece in Newsweek in 1993. I have been committed to fighting the death agenda ever since.
Over these many years of activism, I have noticed a very disturbing trend. More people now accept invitations to suicide gatherings of the kind Francis once wanted. Indeed, when a case of assisted suicide or euthanasia makes the news, we often learn that the death act was actively supported—and attended—by family and friends. I call this phenomenon “validated suicide.”
Supporting another’s self-destruction is not a compassionate—or morally neutral—act. To the contrary, attending a suicide sends an unintentional but clear message to the suicidal person: Yes, your life is no longer worth living; you are a burden; you are better off dead (and we’re better off with you dead, too).
I don’t believe that we should judge or condemn people who commit suicide. None of us knows our own limits or breaking point. But I also think we can validly criticize those who, for whatever reason, make it easier or acceptable for despairing people to end their lives.
Perhaps I am just a moral atavist. Acts that once were unthinkable are not only being legalized but becoming the norm, even the preferred course. Indeed, evidenced by the positive media and popular response to Brittany Maynard's assisted suicide last year, a social expectation seems to be building that family and friends should actively support chosen death.
If I am right, refusing to attend another’s suicide—at least in circumstances involving terminal illness or profound disability—could one day result in social martyrdom, the loss of valued friendships, family estrangement, and accusations of cold-hearted moralism (not to mention the guilt of being absent when a loved one dies). But we aren’t there yet. Regardless of legality, social noncooperation with the death agenda could still help hold back the encroaching tide.
Twenty-five years ago, refusing to validate Frances’s suicide was the easy choice. Not so much today. And the time may come when you are asked to RSVP for a suicide party.
If you ever receive such an invitation, send your unequivocal refusal and offer to help the sufferer find a better way forward. That kind of compassionate engagement and noncooperation with the culture of death will come at some risk. But saying no will protect you from moral complicity in a death—and it could be the act that dissuades your loved one from taking a terrible and irrevocable course.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patients Rights Council.