It is obvious to the TV viewer that under the banners of compassion and autonomy, some are calling for legal recognition of a "right to suicide" and societal acceptance of "physician-assisted suicide." Suicide proponents evoke the image of someone facing unendurable suffering who calmly and rationally decides death is better than life in such a state. They argue that society should respect and defer to the freedom of choice such people exercise in asking to be killed. This essay intends to debunk this point of view on the basis of mental illness among those patients involved.
What would be the consequences of accepting this perspective? Let us examine the facts. Accepting a "right to suicide" would create a legal presumption of sanity, preventing appropriate mental health treatment. If suicide and physician-assisted suicide become legal rights, the presumption that people attempting suicide are deranged and in need of psychological help, borne out by many studies and years of experience, would be reversed. Those seeking suicide would be legally entitled to be left alone (Sullivan) to do something irremediable, based on a distorted assessment of their circumstances, without genuine help.
An attempt at suicide, some psychologists say, is often a challenge to see if anyone out there really cares(Stengel). Indeed, seeking physician assistance in a suicide, rather than just acting to kill oneself, may well be a manifestation, however subconscious, of precisely that challenge. If society creates a "right to suicide" and legalizes "physician-assisted suicide," the message perceived by a suicide attempter is not likely to be, "We respect your wishes," but rather...
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...TRY 455 (1973).
Neuringer, Dichotomous Evaluations in Suicidal Individuals, 25 J. OF CONSULTING PSYCHOLOGY 445, 445 (1961).
- - -, supra note 12; A. Alvarez, THE SAVAGE GOD 199 (1972) cites the case of the suicide of 17th century poet Thomas Chatterton as an example, according to some critics, of an individual possibly overrating his talent and possessing unrealistically high expectations for immediate success.
Rosen, The Serious Suicide Attempt: Five Year Follow Up Study of 886 Patients, 235 J.A.M.A. 2105, 2105 (1976).
Rubinstein, Meses & Lidz, On Attempted Suicide, 79 A.M.A. ARCHIVES NEUROLOGY AND PSYCHIATRY 103, 111 (1958).
Sullivan,A. Voluntary Active Euthanasia for the Terminally Ill and the Constitutional Right to Privacy, 69 CORNELL L. REV. 363 (1984).
Stengel, SUICIDE AND ATTEMPTED SUICIDE 113 (1964).
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