California Verdict Legitimizes Suicidal Ideation

Cyrus Eosphoros, Online Editor

Content Warning: This column contains discussion of suicide, assisted suicide and ableism.

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention, the World Health Organization and the World Federation for Mental Health, the main purpose of the event is to raise awareness of the number of people for whom suicide is a risk and the importance of keeping them from the literal or figurative ledge. A press release by the three organizations notes that “having access to means to kill oneself — most typically firearms, medicines and poisons — is also a risk factor” in who successfully commits suicide. Success is an important metric; for every person who kills themselves, 20 people will try and survive.

The day after World Suicide Prevention Day, the California legislature legalized assisted suicide, a procedure which generally consists of a physician handing their patient a lethal dose of painkillers and letting them walk away.

A mere 12 days after the California verdict, Pope Francis arrived in the U.S. In protest of his speech to Congress, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest American atheist non-profit, is running ads in The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today and The Philadelphia Inquirer. One of the accusations of political involvement they levy against the Catholic Church is that it will “override the right to a death with dignity.”

I remember when “death with dignity” was still “voluntary euthanasia.” Over the course of my life the language has changed from that of euthanasia to “assisted suicide.” Having to highlight the opt-in nature of assisted suicide likely felt counterintuitive, since specifying “voluntary” and using the word “euthanasia” brought to mind euthanasia’s usual meaning: a mercy killing inflicted on a being which cannot render consent. Even “suicide” is somewhat unsavory, hence the move toward “assisted dying.” Organizations including the American Psychological Association have registered objection to the use of the word “suicide” because it is associated with mental illness, in that for someone to want to die they must be suffering from depression or psychosis nearly by definition. The switch from “voluntary” to “assisted” is telling as well. Rather than something that we should support because people are actively seeking it out, death becomes tantamount to a favor that we are doing to the disabled and the chronically ill.

Campaigning for assisted suicide, at this time, is restricted to people who are, to use advocates’ phrasing, terminally ill or whose prognosis is one of lifelong suffering. Cancer is the big, catchy example: a painful, terminal, degenerative disease that all of us are used to crying over, survivors be damned. Other high-profile cases, such as that of Sir Terry Pratchett, are of people with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

When I was 12, I enthusiastically supported legalized assisted suicide. I did not know at the time that I had multiple medical conditions that meant I would spend the rest of my life in extreme pain, much of it while a potential danger to myself or others. I did not know that my constant memory loss was likely due to brain damage or that I stopped breathing in my sleep. Those diagnoses would have to wait until I came of age and came to Oberlin, at which point for the first time in my life I had access to appropriate doctors.

All I knew as a child was that if I could kill myself when I turned 18, with a doctor as the implement to assure me it would work, then I would happily count the days. I have been suicidal for the vast majority of my life; only within the past two years has it been interspersed with periods of wanting to live. A year ago, I finally attempted. Just as I had feared as a child, I failed. I was subsequently involuntarily hospitalized. Three days in Mercy Allen Hospital costs thousands of dollars.

There have been cases, like that of Oregon cancer patient Barbara Wagner, where people’s insurance refused to pay for life-sustaining treatment but covered “physician-assisted dying.” On a global level, the rhetoric of “benefits scroungers,” “burdens on society” and people who don’t “earn a living” devalue disabled lives in a way that predisposes us to contemplate suicide even when our symptoms don’t do so.

There have been multiple definitions of eligibility for assisted suicide, many of which are hypocritical. Some nominate age cutoffs; all this inspires in me is patience. My 12-year-old self was willing to wait half his lifespan if someone would make it easy to die. Any age-based cutoff for assisted suicide is arbitrary. Ones which include terminal illness but exclude “lifelong suffering” show an inconsistent definition of what “quality of life” is supposed to mean. The existence of people who wish to legalize assisted suicide, let alone its successful legalization, only adds weight and rationality to my own still-recurring desires.

Advocates emphasize the importance of knowing that people seeking assisted suicide are “of sound mind.” This is strange, if not perverse, because in any other circumstance the desire to kill oneself is a mental condition. Suicidality is a sign that something is wrong. Somewhere — between how a person receives information about their surroundings, how they evaluate that information, the conception of themselves in relation to it — a connection is broken. Asserting that illness and compromised judgment can be ruled out in people seeking euthanasia is not a value-neutral statement. In itself it is already encouraging their suicidal intent by saying it is possible for them to want to die without being suicidal as we know it, saying that it is possible for “I don’t want to live” to be right. California’s concession to the possibility of people being pressured into suicide by outsiders — whether the outsiders are support networks who fail to live up to the name or society at large — was merely to have physicians meet with them in private.

It’s a logical, reasoned decision, proponents say. That is of course someone would want to kill themselves rather than live disabled or chronically ill. Coupled with that idea is the assumption that “death with dignity” is the alternative to a life without it.

I have been disabled my entire life. I will be disabled my entire life. As for the many, many people who choose to dehumanize me based on this fact, to take advantage of it to hurt me, their soulless cruelty is not my fault. My death would save me both the pain inflicted by my body and the pain inflicted by my society, at the expense of everything I am.

If you want and need so badly to die, I cannot stop you. You can oppose the body that has evolved to keep you alive, against the inevitability of people who know you, love you and need you, against the entire history of humanity. You may even succeed. I cannot stop you.

But I cannot in good conscience support it.

I don’t even know you, and you mean too much to me for that.