Bernier Mayo’s experience as a teacher, a headmaster, and a school superintendent in Vermont makes him uniquely qualified to discuss teenaged suicide. In the article below he explains why he believes legal assisted suicide threatens our teenagers. Please also check our link to an article by well-known bioethicist Wesley Smith on the same topic.
In My Opinion
Doctor Prescribed Suicide
When I opened and read The Caledonian Record this morning, I was horrified to read of another teen-aged suicide. A sophomore at Mount Mansfield Union High School went into a bathroom and shot himself to death. His teachers and friends say that he was a quite normal, well-liked, student and athlete. His suicide took everyone by surprise – no forewarning, no explanatory note, no nothing, except a crashing gunshot and his death.
I am moved to write this article because I have seen this happen too often in my career as a teacher and school head, and I fear that, with what’s going on in Montpelier this legislative session, we are all going to see it happen again and again in the near future Under the persistent efforts of Sen. Ginny Lyons, what she and the supporters of doctor prescribed suicide have succeeded in doing is to make what they call Death With Dignity a front-burner item on Gov. Shumlin’s agenda. That has caused a growing-in-volume discussion of doctor prescribed suicide. Before the election, all five Democratic candidates for Shumlin’s job said they would support a law that would legalize assisted suicide. Now, it appears that perhaps a majority of Democratic legislators favor such a law.
The reality of a doctor prescribing a lethal dose of a painkiller or injecting a person with his death is covered over by half a dozen euphemisms that mask the reality. All of them lead to the same claim, that a person has a right to die by his own hand, or by the hand of someone else if he can’t bring himself to do it. Compassion trumps the value of life. Right?
Here are some pressing questions that death by doctor’s prescription advocates don’t ask. Who is going to draw the line between an 85 year-old with a terminal illness who asks for the pill/injection, and a 16 year-old who thinks he has to kill himself because his first girlfriend dumped him, and because it is his first dumping and has the air of finality, he wants to die? How long before the Hemlock Society, or some other organized pro-suicide organization, puts out a handbook on how to avoid the legal requirements built into the law? How about a pamphlet that solves the problem of avoiding doctors who still believe in the first requirement of the Hippocratic Oath, Do No Harm, by listing the state’s doctors who don’t and who will prescribe death? Such doctor-shopping has been going on in Oregon since the day their legislature legalized death by doctor’s prescription. So has psychologist-shopping to avoid the harshness of proving to a psychologist who values life that whoever is asking to die has justifying reasons. And, who is to protect the hopelessly weak, or Alzheimic, or simply senile and an inconvenience to his/her family from their relatives who would do them in and claim that they asked for it? Have you forgotten that, right now, a woman in Vermont is on trial for smothering her mother who had Alzeimer’s? She might have gotten away with it if assisted suicide had been available to her. Her mother surely couldn’t defend herself or explain how she died.
I ask these questions (and I could ask a dozen more) because of my own experiences in my career as a teacher, a superintendent of schools, and a headmaster. In my first eight years as a teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy, I reacted in horror to six teenage suicides. One shot himself at a Friday night party at Joe’s Pond because his girlfriend dumped him. Up until he pulled the trigger on a handgun, it was all melodramatic play-acting. Then, an incredibly real bullet came out of the gun and went through his head. Another was a case of PTS from his year in Vietnam. A year after his return, he shot himself. A third was depression; he hanged himself in a closet at home. A fourth drove his motorcycle into a wall because he was fascinated by the first three and the publicity surrounding their deaths. The fifth jumped out of her dorm window the year after she graduated from the Academy.
The sixth was, perhaps, the most personally horrific. He was a good student, a great athlete, and he possessed a great sense of humor. He came to my house in Passumpsic one spring day, and told me that he was very afraid that he would commit suicide. I did my best to talk him down and referred him to Northeast Kingdom Mental Health. He came to my house at least ten times over the next two years, and I counseled him as best I could. He was also being counseled by NKMH on and off. Then, I moved to Long Island, and within a year, I read that he had taken a rifle out into the woods and killed himself.
So, what’s all this have to do with legalizing assisted suicide? Just this. The air is full of rationalizations that justify suicide in the name of compassion, of inherent rights to do it, of ending indescribable suffering, of dying with dignity, of assisting suicide as acceptable terminal care. How long before the enabling conditions are broadened to include many other “acceptable” circumstances.
If death by doctor’s prescription becomes Vermont law, we cannot avoid an increase of many more teenage suicides, and here’s why. In my eight years as a beginning teacher at the Academy, suicidal ideation, i.e. when a student tells others, a teacher or a friend, that he thinks about suicide as a way out from his life and/or problems, was a weekly event. I know from those years of at least a hundred referrals to guidance counselors, or in real attempts at suicide, to practicing psychologists or psychiatrists. And in the thirty-two years that I ran schools and school systems, suicidal ideation has become an almost daily event. What with all of this excusing rhetoric, how long do you think it will be before the most vulnerable among us, our teenagers, who are not yet mature enough to know the difference between tough times that will pass and literally final tough times, take what they firmly believe to be the easy way out?
I’ve seen it happen too many times. I hope I never see it again. Don’t let enabling rationalizations forgive your compunctions against some people killing others in the name of compassion. Don’t let the soft-soap sellers override your understanding of the bigger problems that life-ending solutions will cause. Tell your representatives to run, not walk, away from doctor prescribed death legislation.
Bernier L. Mayo
January 19, 2011