Our excessive tolerance of suicide

If your overriding values are individual autonomy and choice, this is an easy case. In fact, all cases — however individually tragic — are theoretically easy. A mentally ill criminal — or a lonely senior, or a depressed teenager — has every right to take his or her own life. It is just another profound, self-determining decision, like marriage or retirement. Retirement from an existence one finds unbearable.

But even the Belgians don’t really believe this. They surround assisted suicide with legal qualifications. The prisoner in this case apparently had an incurable mental disorder, which Belgium’s justice minister cited as the reason for state action in putting him to death. Assisted suicide is generally available to Belgians in cases of serious physical and (more recently) mental illness. According to the Associated Press, 1,800 Belgians took advantage of the offer last year — an increase of 400 from the previous year. Causes included dementia, cancer and psychosis. Belgium is simply extending this right to prisoners.

This is justified by an ideology of choice. But the determination of certain societal classes that are helped in committing suicide is hard to separate from a judgment about the worth of those classes. The right to suicide adheres, in this case, not to all human beings but to sick and apparently flawed human beings. And such a “right” begins to look more and more like an expectation. A mentally or physically ill person can be killed, in the end, because they have an illness. A qualification can slide into a justification. This is a particularly powerful social message since people with cancer or severe depression sometimes feel worthless, or like a burden on their families, anyway. It is pitifully easy to make them — with an offer of help — into instruments of their own execution.