The prohibition against assisted suicide, now the law in all but three states, is currently being debated in a number of state legislatures. In addition, judges in two more states, New Mexico and Montana, have issued decisions that permit assistance under certain circumstances, a sign that change may be on the way. It is long over-due. Laws against assisted suicide are motivated by one particular religious viewpoint and simply don’t belong in the state statute books.
To begin with, these are extremely odd legal provisions. Many laws require a person or institution obtain professional assistance before taking a legally permissible action. Individuals need a prescription from a licensed physician to take certain drugs; businesses must use certified accountants to make certain reports. These provisions are designed to protect people from their own bad judgment, or to stop institutions from acting in a way that would harm people who rely on them. But where else is there a law which forbids people to obtain professional assistance before taking a legally permissible action? What would we think of a provision that forbid people from obtaining professional help for some other major decision, such as choosing a career or seeking a divorce? If we are concerned about protecting people from their own bad judgment, as we are in other areas, it would make sense to encourage them to seek professional help, not to prohibit them from doing so.
Clearly, the prohibition of assisted suicide is left over from the time when suicide was itself illegal. That prohibition was motivated by the doctrine of one particular religion, Roman Catholicism, which is one reason why it was abandoned. A religious institution is obviously entitled to condemn a legally permitted action; in fact, it has a constitutional right to do so. But the government should not force all citizens, of differing religious affiliations, to follow one particular religion’s doctrines. And it makes even less sense to recognize this need to be neutral, and then, on the basis of a rejected religious prohibition, make things inconvenient for those who want to exercise their legal right.
In this particular case, moreover, the Catholic Church’s prohibition against suicide comes from institutional policy, not from the Scripture that it shares with many other religious groups. As is well known, seven people in the Bible commit suicide. Five of them are depicted as bad people, but we are never told whether they are committing one more evil act or simply ending lives that they recognize as despicable. The Bible is not shy about condemning wrongful behavior, but it makes no comment on these suicides, one way or the other. They seventh suicide is Samson. His act – collapsing a temple on the Philistines and on himself – is clearly depicted as heroic, and as an expiation for his bad judgment in trusting Delilah. That might lead to the conclusion that the Bible views suicide as moral under appropriate circumstances, except for the fact that Samson is a soldier. It is a soldier’s duty to face death, even certain death, so doing so may not count as suicide. In other words, the Scriptural position on suicide is indeterminate.
The reason that the Catholic Church originally took such a strong stand against suicide was probably pragmatic. When Christians were being persecuted in Ancient Rome, the Church took the position that anyone who died for his or her beliefs would be a martyr and go directly to Heaven. As a result, the Church needed a countervailing doctrine to prevent the mass suicide of its members. The same pragmatic reason applied when the Catholic Church sponsored the Crusades in the High Middle Ages, and promised anyone who died fighting for the Holy Land the same automatic admission to paradise.
Underlying this hard-headed realism, however, is a genuine moral stance, however. It is the traditional notion that a person’s life belongs to God, that the only way to behave morally is to direct one’s actions toward the salvation of one’s soul. That is certainly one way to view the world, but it is not the position that majority of people in America maintain these days. Most people strive to live fulfilling lives in the here and now, to create a sense of meaning and purpose for themselves. When no such opportunities are left to them, when all that they can look forward to is a pain, dependence and decrepitude, they are entitled to decide that their inevitable end should come. Allowing licensed physicians to assist them is more likely to limit suicide to circumstances such as these than to encourage it in circumstances (such as depression) where possibilities for a fulfilling life remain.