I have argued that there is still a de facto suicide prohibition, for the following reasons:
- People who attempt suicide and fail are often imprisoned in a hospital as a result.
- People who attempt suicide are forcibly "rescued" and brought back to life against their will, if possible - sometimes to a state of very low quality of life, such as akinetic mutism.
- Those who express a desire to commit suicide are often imprisoned in a hospital as a result; this process is much more humiliating and degrading than outsiders might realize.
- The drug prohibition (drug war) means that barbiturates are unavailable - barbiturates being the only means of suicide considered humane enough to be used in states that allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill people.
- Helping another person to commit suicide is prosecuted as a crime in all but the most limited situations in the few states that allow physician-assisted suicide. Suicide is the only act that is not itself a crime, but which assisting another person to commit is a crime.
The suicide prohibition, as outlined above, is often said to be in the best interests of the suicidal persons themselves - a paternalistic justification that does not sit well with those who value personal liberty. I have argued that it would be much better for us to be allowed to kill ourselves securely and peacefully, with a modicum of dignity.
What I wish to discuss in this post is the ways in which the suicide prohibition harms even people who are not themselves suicidal.
1. Coercive Care Costs Money
Forcible treatment of people who attempt suicide in emergency rooms and hospitals costs between one billion and four billion dollars per year in the United States. This unwanted treatment does not benefit anyone and harms taxpayers and the entire medical system.
2. Dangerous Methods Create Externalities
People denied access to comfortable means of suicide (like barbiturates) will often use less reliable means that endanger bystanders, such as chemical reactions inside enclosed areas and traffic collisions. In addition, common means of suicide such as standing in front of a train, shooting oneself at a shooting range, or jumping from heights are emotionally painful for those who witness or involuntarily participate in the event.
3. We Take Our Organs With Us
When a person commits suicide in our system, he or she must do so in a manner that avoids contact with hospitals, preventing him or her from donating healthy organs to those who need them. Over 6,000 people die every year in the United States waiting for an organ; over 34,000 people commit suicide every year, taking with them healthy hearts, lungs, livers, eyes, and skin that could be used to save the lives of people who want to live. In other words, the suicide prohibition kills 6,000 people per year who want to live. Does society's interest in forcing a person to stay alive when he wants to die really justify allowing another person to die when he wants to live? Should society prevent suicidal people from saving the lives of others who actually want to live?
4. The Fantasy Of Rescue Tempts Attention Seekers
The practice of "rescuing" people who attempt suicide by forcibly treating them tempts people who don't really want to die, but are in pain and crave attention, to endanger themselves. If suicide were legal and easy, and suicide attempters were not interfered with, the signalling value of a suicidal gesture would be destroyed. By destroying the signalling value, hence the incentive to self-harm, we could better protect those who don't really want to die. As it is, the fantasy of rescue tempts those who don't really want to die into harming themselves, hoping for a rescue that might not come. Undoubtedly, thousands of people who didn't really want to die, die from suicide every year; if reliably lethal barbiturates were available and "rescue" unheard-of, non-suicidal people would have much less social incentive to engage in dangerous, ambiguous self-harm events.
5. We Can't Say Goodbye To You - Or Talk It Over
Friends and family left behind by a suicide often complain that the suicide didn't give any warning, and didn't say goodbye. Unfortunately, even if a suicidal person wants to talk over his decision with family and friends or say goodbye, he cannot, because he risks imprisonment in a hospital. If suicide were legal, it would be much less unexpected and tragic for those left behind, and suicidal people would be able to rationally talk over their decision with other people. As it is, we're on our own.