Assisted Suicide and the State
FEW THINGS TERRIFY ME AS MUCH as the thought of being kept alive, indefinitely — hooked to machines, monitored, maintained and held in the land of the living long past the point at which the joy of living has ceased.
I worry less about death than I do about pain. It may be appointed unto us once to die, but needless suffering seems avoidable. Hence, my support for assisted suicide, an issue that strikes at the root of how and why we govern ourselves, and whether there is any collective response to an individual’s death that seems just.
Connecticut lawmakers are poised to consider legislation making physician-assisted suicide legal. Three states permit it: Oregon, Washington and Montana. In November, voters in Massachusetts narrowly rejected a ballot initiative in favor of assisted suicide.
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided there is no federal constitutional right to end one’s own life.
The jurisprudence is mystifying. On the federal level, we are told we have no right to die — that right isn’t in the Constitution. No surprise. The federal government was supposed to be one of limited powers. Transforming government into the moral equivalent of Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s mad scientist dabbling in the dark art of creating something from nothing, spirit from matter, was far from the minds of the Framers.
The states, however, have a general police power, the ability to make laws governing the health, education and welfare of their citizens. Much of this law was smuggled into this country by British colonists, carrying lock, stock and barrel such medieval conceits as sovereign immunity, and the notion that life is a gift from God that no person can reject: How dare the pot say to the potter, why makest me thus?
My heavens are star-filled, mysterious, infinite, but silent. Neither God nor gods nor the fates have decreed some destiny that I am duty bound to accept. If I am wrong, and I find myself on the wrong side of the eternal once I pass through death’s door, I am willing to face that without the humdrum hand of the state leading me along the path of righteousness.
Suffering isn’t a civic duty. We yield too much to the state when we give it the power to tell us we must live. The state does not share the scent of the divine or the immortal. It is a necessary evil, our most enduring fiction.
I’ve appeared in court countless times on behalf of an individual facing allegations made by the state. But I have never met this entity on whose behalf we prosecute, and even kill, one another. Yes, there are prosecutors, police, judges, lawmakers, and all the paraphernalia of this thing we call the state. But search for it all you like; you will never find it. It does not breathe, it has no pulse. It is a symbol through which others act.
We need this abiding fiction for the sake of roads, education and public safety — the mundane affairs of the living. But, in a republic, the state has no priestly function: I don’t want it policing the boundaries between life and death.
Yes, there should be laws against murder, and murderers deserve punishment — although I doubt justice requires the institutionalized savagery of the lengthy sentence we now routinely impose. I don’t mind paying taxes to support a police force that will keep me safe.
But the state does not own my soul. When my body fails, when my spirit wanes, I don’t want to be kept tethered to a civil weal. Let me go if I am prepared to leave. Life is not a prison from which only God can free us.
Powerful instrumental reasons support limits on physician-assisted suicide. We value individual life and fear that assisted suicide might yield an embrace of euthanasia. So long as the barrier between life and death is kept absolute, with the law presuming that all suicides are irrational and therefore prohibited as a matter of law, no door is opened to the too easy conclusion that an unwilling person should be compelled to die.
It is appointed unto us once to die, the good book says. The Greeks were prosaic: all men are mortal, the syllogism goes. And it is so. We come, we go, and the space between our coming and going is this thing we call life. It is glorious, not to be shunned lightly.
But life is no gift of the state.
Connecticut should pass legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide. No compelling state interest requires gratuitous suffering. A physician oath-bound to do no harm does not violate that oath by serving the inevitable end of life. A law requiring careful and cautious review of a decision to seek assisted suicide can honor the value we place on life, while paying homage to autonomy and respect for individuals.
The point, Socrates once said, is not merely to live, but to live well. The state has no business policing the boundaries of life and death once a person decides it’s time to go.