Well, first of all, because it already is. This is not a theoretical proposition, but a “self-evident truth,” as the original inventors of the concept of civil rights (the author of the U.S. Constitution) put it. They talked about a right to life, not an obligation or duty to live, and also specified that the mentioning of this particular right (as well as any others) “cannot be construed to deny or disparage” any other rights.
Very few people understand the significance of this today, thanks for the most part to the influence of Christianity on our culture. As even a cursory analysis of history reveals, taking one’s own life wasn’t regarded as an act of violence or hideous moral transgression before this religious influence took hold. It’s pretty much the same deal as with homosexuality — the Greeks and Romans, on the whole, were radically more accepting of it than some of our own contemporaries. Euthanasia itself is a Greek word, and its original meaning is “good death,” which doesn’t necessarily imply outside assistance — nor does it imply suicide, by the way; it simply means the kind of death that the individual deems to be good. Different schools of thought of course differed on what such goodness is, but the important thing to remember is that there was no wholesale condemnation of voluntary death in the Classical world.
The Enlightenment is often regarded as a return to pre-Christian ideas about social life — a continuation of the natural evolution of thought that was forcibly halted during the medieval period. In light of this, the legal prohibition and social condemnation of voluntary death looks more like a religious phenomenon than a moral principle with secular justification behind it, a situation akin to that of a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions — and indeed, both issues deal with bodily autonomy. This is yet another reason why we already have a right to voluntary death: denying such a right amounts to the establishment of a religion by the government. So the real question is not why suicide should be recognized as a right, but how come that already isn’t?
Moreover, I have strong reasons to believe that if people were allowed to choose their own time and manner of death, without having to fear detainment, forced medical treatment, and permanent disability in the case of failure, and to express their views on the matter without being censored or (again) having to fear dire consequences, 1) fewer suicides would occur in the first place, and 2) those that do occur would be successful, which would significantly decrease human suffering.
Even if someone isn’t really determined to die by their own hand, knowing that it’s not allowed can be a very distressing thought to a lot of people. Think about it — isn’t it comforting to think that whatever situation you’re in, you have a way to get out of it? No one knows in advance what kind of medical, financial, family-related or other emergency may strike them, and just having a Plan B in any of these cases might help you to think more clearly and handle the circumstances more efficiently, even if you decide not to take that option.
In my personal experience, I’ve learned that life will come to an end anyway, whether we want it to or not, and it is the quality of that life that matters the most, not its mere length. Having seen a great deal of effort wasted on keeping people alive who either didn’t want to be or were in no condition to get anything out of it (case in point, my dad’s dad, a WWII vet, felt that he was mentally dead long before he was actually dead, due to Alzheimer’s), it quickly became obvious to me that that is exactly the thing I do not want. I don’t know why it’s such a default, or why people don’t seem to be (or want to be) aware of the fact that death is real and it happens to all of us. If you cling to life too hard, at a certain point all you do is cause more pain, both to the person in question and their loved ones/caretakers.
Not all voluntary deaths are a response to adverse circumstances, however. There is a pervasive assumption in our society that the decision to die is somehow a form of “giving up,” or that it can only be brought about by some sort of suffering. How do we know that, though? Humans are not mind-readers. Psychological models, charts and schematics can offer some insight, but the fact is that those do not apply to every single individual.
I can only speak for myself here, but I have noticed something very alarming about this. People have asked me why I am an advocate for voluntary death and why have I chosen this path for my own ending; but they scarcely listen to my answers! Even despite my lengthy explanations about how I want to make the event a celebration of individuality, a moment to share with my loved ones without uncertainty and the dread of putting them at risk of incarceration for simply being there; about the fact that I want to be an organ donor and that is only possible with a healthy, young body (the legal age limit is 50 years), so it is also an act of charity, rather than “selfishness” as it is often framed; about the fact that I’m not in any emotional distress (most of the time, though I do get angry about the injustices of the world) — they still default back to the assumption that I must be “depressed” (whatever that even means; I could write a whole new article about the absurdity of criminalizing sadness, or emotions in general). I am constantly told I should “seek help” (help with what, exactly?), or that I don’t value life enough because I’m an atheist (which is the most absurd idea I have ever heard — if anything, we value life more than religious people because we’re aware of the fact that we have only one!), or that I need a “real man” to force me into a heterosexual relationship to “clear my head” (I have never been attracted to men in a sexual manner, so this is downright insulting)…
In other words, there is always some excuse not to listen to what I’m actually saying. My decision is based on rational considerations, not emotional whim. And I don’t believe that I’m the only one who has made a decision to die voluntarily due to these considerations, either. As Wendy O. Williams put it: “I don’t believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have.”
I still think that pressuring people to hate or kill themselves is wrong — but isn’t that what the psychiatric establishment is doing to begin with? They take the socially and/or cognitively different, and call them alienating names, while trying to make them more like the majority, without even considering whether they want to change or not. It is taken as a default that if you are not like “most people,” that is necessarily wrong, and your fault. The fact that you might have different needs and sensitivities is pathologized. While the reality is more like this: “Everyone needs accommodation, even able-bodied neurotypicals, the difference is that the world was built for them. They don’t notice the accommodations for them because they are so common place (stairs are the right height, roads exist for travel that wouldn’t be possible by foot, etc.).”1 Indeed, for people considered neurotypical, society itself is a giant accommodation, in the absence of which they would promptly perish. But somehow, if you are a neurological (or sexual, or racial, or any other) minority, suddenly you aren’t entitled to acceptance and accommodation, only ostracism and coercion. It’s not at all surprising that such institutionalized bullying drives people to seek death — often a better alternative than “treatment;” just ask Alan Turing. If you want to prevent people from dying, fight against this mistreatment and cruelty, not their rights!
Another objection I commonly hear is that if voluntary death is normalized and becomes part of the social discourse, impressionable minors will think it’s “cool” and make rash decisions that they don’t fully understand. The very same objection was raised against sex education decades ago. Statistics show, however, that the STD and teen pregnancy rates are lower in areas where proper sex education is given to students. Knowing about something doesn’t mean a teen will automatically try it. In fact, the more factual information is available for teens, the less likely it is that they will learn the consequences the hard way. Scaremongering simply does not work.
Regardless of what one’s moral stance is on the value of life, or the meaning of death, it is time to recognize that there are people whose views differ from ours, and that we do not have the right to force them to live (and die) the way we want to. This is why I prefer the phrase “voluntary death” rather than suicide — it hopefully makes the most crucial point clear: that it should be an individual’s own decision. We all die; it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. But each journey is different, and it should be up to each of us how long it is, and how we get to the end of it.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.