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To Be or Not To Be1

Oct 12, 2008
Unwilling, we enter this world. Often even more unwilling, we leave it. Yet in 2005, 32,637 Americans left quite willingly,2 whether because they were in terrible physical or psychic pain or because they shared the sentiment of actor George Sanders, who at 65 left a suicide note that read, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

Death is the great mystery, the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,”3 the universal fate of all living things: “born but to die.”4 No wonder it breeds such hopes of heaven and of reincarnation. No wonder religions deny its existence so vehemently one might think it is religion’s sole raison d’être to do so.

How willingly, thoughtlessly, copiously we send others to their deaths! And how assiduously we continue to inhibit ourselves from pursuing the bare bodkin when life becomes too terrible or too boring to endure. Suicide, once a felony throughout the U.S., is no longer a crime in any state. However, only in Oregon has suicide been promoted to a right, with assisted suicide legalized. And even there, the right to choose to end one’s life is hedged in by a long list of conditions and procedures.

The Canadian Library of Parliament has released a report, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: International Experiences, by Marlisa Tiedemann and Dominque Valiquet. A number of European countries allow euthanasia and assisted suicide. In each country, a great struggle over the legislation occurred between what we may call the Pro-Life and the Pro-Choice contingents. And in every case where the legislation was successful, conditions similar to those in Oregon are required for the act to be legal.

And why should that be so? Why should we not be freely and unconditionally able to choose a painless and peaceful leavetaking, having no choice in our coming hither, and our end so certain? “To cease upon the midnight with no pain:”5 a consummation, I would think, devoutly to be wished, and one which most people wish for. And yet we continue to deny it to ourselves. But we’re getting there. Oregon and a few nations have begun the journey toward death on demand.

It strikes us that if the term “human rights” has any meaning at all, this right must surely be among them.
1 Our illustration is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David. Click this link to view larger versions of the painting.
2 Suicide Statistics at Suicide.org (Accessed October 8, 2008)
3 Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 87-88.
4 Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope, line 10
5 Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats, line 56
tags: Human Rights | Health | Law

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