Saturday, October 4, 2008

Debbie Purdy, "Death Plants," and the Suicide Prohibition

Catherine Bennett writes a forceful article addressing Debbie Purdy's battle to clarify Britain's law regarding assisted suicide ("Let this woman die as she chooses, not in a death plant").

Bennett argues that forcing people to die in a "corporate" manner rather than as they choose - that is, according to the religious whims of other people - is barbaric. And it is doubly awful to force dying people to travel to creepy "death plants" in Zurich, rather than allowing them to die peacefully in their own homes.

Bennett is too optimistic, however, about the prospects for suicide in able-bodied people. She writes:
The whole country now knows that Ms Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has thought in detail about when and how she wishes to die. When the pain of her illness becomes intolerable, she would like to have the choice, as the able-bodied do, of taking her own life. [Emphasis mine.]

I think one of the biggest problems for those who favor an institutional right to suicide is this tendency for non-suicidal people to assume that suicide is a simple thing to accomplish. I think many people favor a right to suicide - but they wrongly assume that able-bodied people today currently enjoy a meaningful right to suicide. It's not true. Reliably lethal means of committing suicide are difficult to acquire, especially means, such as barbiturates, that are not violent and traumatic to administer. If a suicide is "caught" before death has occurred, he will be forcibly restrained and brought back to life. If he suffers severe brain damage from the ordeal, he will be maintained on life support, despite his clear wish to refuse this sort of "life-saving" treatment.

The truth is that no one has a right to suicide, either in Britain, or in the United States. Suicide may not be a crime, but as a practical matter, it is prohibited all the same.

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