Again today, my Facebook feed is filled with statements of mourning about yet another reported suicide of a well known person. People who knew Robin Williams only by his public persona are grieved by his untimely death, allegedly at his own hands. We can only imagine the heartbreak being experienced by his friends and family.
And again today, I ask: what is the distinction that allows some to embrace the physician-assisted suicide that is now legal in Vermont, and to abhor the suicide of a man suffering from the deepest pains of depression?
The “Death with Dignity” crowd will tell you that what they promote is different. They say it is not suicide but rather the “hastening” of an inevitable death.
But such distinctions matter not on a slippery slope. And that is where we are now in Vermont.
Enabling the participation of doctors in the act of suicide promotes the delusion that swallowing a legally-prescribed toxic potion will provide for a more comfortable and compassionate exit than other methods of suicide we might imagine. But in reality, suicide by any method is a messy affair, and that which is assisted by a doctor, a purported healer, is more, not less, macabre.
We will all die eventually, but swallowing doctor-prescribed pills to “hasten” even a death that appears to be coming sooner rather than later belies hopelessness –the same hopelessness that underlies all suicide. Worse than that, legal physician-assisted suicide implies a public judgment about the relative value of some lives. Right now the line is drawn at “terminally ill with a diagnosis of 6 months to live and able to self-administer the pills.” There is nothing preventing that line from being moved, and ample evidence that it will be moved if we remain on the slippery slope.
Once we legally endorse suicide for some reasons, we begin the conversation about endorsing it for any reason.
Do we mourn the suicide of Robin Williams today and rejoice in the doctor-assisted suicide of a terminally ill friend tomorrow?
I think not.