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Medium Read: “Death Becomes Him”

March 24, 2010

March’s Atlantic included an article about Ludwig Minelli whose organization Dignitas which has assisted more than 1,000 people from all over the world commit suicide. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland and there are a few other similar organizations who do the same thing for Swiss citizens. Nonetheless, Minelli’s willingness to accept all-comers with essentially no conditions – no illness of any kind is prerequisite – has brought a substantial amount of people from abroad seeking his services – and the neighbors are none too pleased. According to an article (that I am unwilling to buy) summarized on the Dignitas Wikipedia page, “21% of people receiving assisted dying in Dignitas do not have a terminal or progressive illness, but rather ‘weariness of life.'”

If life expectancy continues increase, the dilemma of assisted suicide will likely become a more and more significant question in medical and moral debates. For those with painful terminal illnesses, I do support assisted suicide. Allowing those who are dying choose to a path to death with less pain and more dignity is a good thing. I don’t, however, believe anyone should help another to kill themselves. By agreeing to assist them, the assistant accepts that a human life is without value. No human life, no matter how tormented, is valueless. We are infinitely redeemable. That way lies nihilism, something so hopeless as to be unaddressable in this space (though Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity confronts it so persuasively). Perhaps the axioms I’m working with here aren’t universally accepted. They are, however, the core from which my thoughts derive and, proceeding from that core, assisting another to kill his- or herself is immoral.

There are complicating factors, both in the piece and the suicide debate in general. Minelli must secure sodium pentobarbital, a restricted substance, which necessitates the cooperation of a doctor and compliance with certain regulations. I also think the element of Christian doctrine that declares that suicide victims go to hell blurs things, in the part of me that is reflexively anti-Catholic (which isn’t all of me). Also, the enthusiasm of one of Minelli’s employees at Dignitas seems to compel him to make the case for assisted suicide more cavalierly than Minelli would have:

“Suicide is not bad,” he explained. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to end your life. Sometimes life is great, sometimes life is shit. I have the right to say that I’m pissed off with my life, and I want to end it.”

That rubbed me the wrong way. Nonetheless, it is a “fascinatingly haunting story,” as one commenter put it, well worth reading for the moral questions it raises.

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