Ross Douthat expresses the “right to die” side of the paradox of natural death nicely in his rejoinder to Kevin Drum.
Well, yes: The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn’t amount to much if you don’t disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives. Absent that disapproval (and an accompanying, even-stronger disapproval of the people who assist them), you won’t be bothered by the fact that most of Jack Kevorkian’s clients weren’t terminally ill and some weren’t ill at all — because there’s nothing wrong with people committing suicide. You won’t be bothered by people availing themselves of suicide clinics because of“weariness of life” in Europe, or people taking lethal prescriptions in Oregon because they’re worried about “losing autonomy” or “being a burden” (both of which are more frequently cited reasons for choosing assisted suicide under Oregon’s law than are concerns about physical pain) — because, again, there’s nothing wrong with suicide. You won’t have any qualms about the agitation in the Netherlands to extend the right to doctor-assisted suicide to everyone over 70 rather than just the terminally ill — because, once again, there’s nothing wrong with people killing themselves even when disease isn’t a factor. All you’ll be concerned about, as Drum puts it, is whether the “client really wants to die and isn’t just reacting to a momentary bout of depression,” whether “there’s no coercion” and whether “the client is of sound mind,” and other matters of “simple common sense.”
Douthat’s main point here is that there is no clear line, meaning to allow voluntary active euthanasia is to allow it for everyone. He’s not OK with suicide for some, so he’s not OK with suicide for any. What’s odd here is that Douthat sees something wrong with allowing everyone who is a competent adult to make a decision for themselves. His implicit question is, “how do we control who gets to choose this option?” As one commenter put it, he’s not a conservative, he’s an authoritarian.
The other interesting piece of Douthat’s retort is his thought experiment in which a hypothetical friend, injured in an accident and now wheelchair-bound, goes through fits of depression and eventually settles on getting a suicide kit from a Swiss doctor. Douthat’s story is meant to trigger a feeling of “That doctor wasn’t doing what was best for my friend! He was just in a wheelchair, that’s no reason to kill yourself. Murderer!”
But Douthat’s set up is disingenuous for two reasons.
First, the friend goes through “bouts of depression” meaning the friend is either not really depressed or that the depressed states are not genuine in that decisions made while depressed are the equivalent of acting under temporary insanity. Douthat’s set up makes the reader question the validity of the friend’s emotions. It discredits the reality of a person’s suffering.
Which brings us to the second point: It isn’t about you, you asshole. It’s about the friend in the wheelchair. The story is meant to be upsetting because it sounds like a) the wheelchair friend went to get suicide without consulting you, his friend, and b) the loss of the wheelchair friend is painful and saddening and angering to you the friend. Douthat does not address the emotions or feelings of the person in the wheelchair seeking voluntary active euthanasia. He does not see those problems as cogent as how it will make others feel.
The death of any person is a great loss and often suicide happens without sufficient open and measured discussion among friends and family. The miss in Douthat’s fictional tale is that moment where Drum and his friend discuss why assisted suicide might be the right recourse in the face of a life of suffering and depression. Yes suicide affects friends and family, but so does the incurable suffering of a loved one. Discussions around life or death should include others, but the focus should be on the person’s choice to live or die.
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