Were all going to die, and while we hope for a good long life and a peaceful exit, such will not be the case for many of us.
So should you have the right to end your own life?
Californias End of Life Option Act recently went into effect. It will allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives with the assistance of a doctor. The bill passed after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with a rare form of cancer, sparked national debate by moving to Oregon, where that states Death with Dignity law would allow her to end her life with a high dose of doctor-prescribed sedatives.
Brittany ultimately used Oregons law to end her life, and the debate has continued ever since. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide argue that such an option provides control and comfort to patients who would otherwise suffer a slow and painful death. Opponents posit that allowing people the option to end their lives would open a Pandoras Box. It is said that people may be pushed into suicide to save on health care costs, or individuals with treatable conditions may kill themselves instead of seeking help. More fundamentally, opponents contend that suicide is inherently irrational.
While I dont know that my personal morals would ever allow me to commit suicide even if facing a terminal illness (I hope Im never confronted with such a scenario), the arguments against assisted suicide come up short.
Lets start with the claim that suicide is fundamentally irrational. Rational choice, basically defined, means making a decision after thinking things through instead of going with your gut. Economics and other disciplines teach us that people do a pretty good job of making rational choices. We make choices every day by weighing the potential costs and benefits of an activity. We generally make the best decisions we can with the information we possess in order to achieve goals big and small.
Suicide is a choice like any other. If a person believes that the costs of living outweigh the benefits, then choosing death is perfectly rational. Since we cannot know how an individual thinks about a situation or know their internal cost-benefit calculation, we cannot say that suicide is inherently irrational without imputing our own personal beliefs and biases.
Many critics are more concerned with the practical implications of normalized assisted suicide, arguing it would lead to everything from suicide epidemics, to encouraging grandma to check out early in order to cash in on the inheritance, to euthanizing people with severe mental or physical problems.
What do the data tell us? While assisted suicide is legal in only a few places, it is not new. Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Colombia and Japan allow it. California joins Washington state, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana in allowing Americans to die with their doctors help.
In the years after enacting their death-with-dignity laws, places like Oregon indeed saw an increase in assisted suicide, but it hardly has reached epidemic status. In 1998, 16 Oregonians used the law. In 2013, 71 people did soabout 0.21 percent of all deaths in the state.
What about using the law to murder or euthanize? Its important to note that all these laws, both domestically and internationally, pertain to suicide, not euthanasia two ideas that could not be more different. With suicide, someone takes their own life. With euthanasia, someone takes another persons life.
Moreover, safeguards prevent abuses of the law (though we may argue that any adult should be allowed to end his or her life). For example, only terminally ill patients are candidates for assisted suicide. Further, medical professionals repeatedly evaluate candidates to determine their psychological state and ability to consent. In some states these safeguards go even further: patients must be able to self-administer the lethal medication.
The idea of assisted suicide makes many of us uncomfortable. However, living in a free society means we must respect other peoples choices. Part of living is dying. People should be free to choose.