What I think about assisted suicide

To clarify this post.

On a philosophical level, I think it makes perfect sense that someone who knows they are about to die would rather die in a less painful way. I have objections to assisted suicide, but they’re about practical issues of implementing it in the real world without allowing it to be misused, not about the basic idea.

The basic premise of assisted suicide is that living in untreatable pain can be worse than dying sooner. Problems arise when people elide that into “living with a disability is worse than dying.”

I read about this case in the book Pride Against Prejudice by Jenny Morris. Kenneth Bergstedt was a quadriplegic. His father, who was also disabled (he had lost his leg in an industrial accident), was Kenneth’s only caregiver. In 1990, when he was 31 years old, Kenneth asked a court for assistance committing suicide because he feared being forced to live in a nursing home when his father died, or if his father became too ill to care for him. The court granted his request.

It’s understandable that Kenneth Bergstedt would feel that suicide was his only way out. And the court’s decision also makes sense, on an individual level, since there was nothing the court could do directly to improve Kenneth’s situation. On a broader level, though, it raises the question of what the country’s nursing homes are like if the court considers it rational to choose death over a nursing home. If the options available to people who are paralyzed can be improved so that they are not worse than death (and they can), we should be improving their lives rather than encouraging them to turn to suicide as a solution. The assumption that horrible suffering is an inevitable part of being disabled– that of course Kenneth Bergstedt would want to die, not because of nursing homes, or his father’s health, but simply because of his paralysis– deters people from working to solve problems like Kenneth’s, and from even seeing that they are solvable.

Problems also arise when people conflate assisted suicide with ending life support for someone who is already dead.

This is the case I was thinking about when I wrote that post. Charlotte Fitzmaurice was in severe pain (due to an infection after surgery to remove kidney stones). Because she was both a minor and unable to speak, and thus unable to request assisted suicide herself, her case was framed not as assisted suicide but as removal of life support– even though she was consious and breathing, and her only “life support” was a feeding tube. That was the life support they removed. She died of starvation and dehydration 14 days after the decision to allow her to die.

Charlotte died in a way that was unquestionably slow and painful, in contradiction to what her mother and any reasonable person would want, because “allowing” someone to die by removing life support was considered more justifiable than killing someone painlessly with medication.

 

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