December 10, 2008

The Suicide Tourist

An American man, a retired university professor, suffers from motor neurone disease, which deprived him of the ability to use his arms and legs and requires the use of a ventilator to stay alive. This is the same disease that has disabled world-famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

After several years of existence like this, the man decides he does not want to continue that existence and travels to Switzerland, where medically-assisted suicide is legal. There, he rents an apartment, says goodbye to his wife, and drinks a lethal cocktail that painlessly puts him to sleep and then he dies.

All recorded on camera, all to be broadcast on British television.

I'm of two minds about this. I support the man's right to opt for his own death. It's his life, his body, and he gets to decide how to use and and if he wants to end his use of it. And I'm of the mindset that since a lot of people seem to disagree with this on the grounds that they are not morally comfortable with suicide. This moral judgment appears to have its basis in religious prohibitions against suicide.

But on the other hand, assisted suicide is all about dying with dignity. It's hard to imagine a less dignified way to die than with a film crew there ready to turn the event into a reality show. The moment of the man's death will be broadcast -- he will be seen to take a cup, drink it, then in a few moments close his eyes to die. Seeing a real death on TV is something a lot of people aren't used to or prepared for.

On balance, I have to say that it's overall a good thing. If I had a terrible disease and knew that there was no cure, I can easily feel the temptation to want to check out at least on my own terms and not those of the disease. And I wouldn't give a damn about someone else's squeamishness about it or their moralization about it. If I do not own the ability to control my own life and my own body, then I really do not own anything at all. If I choose to end my life, then that is my choice. It's obviously an irreversible one and I can understand wanting to make very sure that someone who wants to suicide is really doing so for the right reasons. But ultimately, a person should have that right, so long as they exercise it in a way that is not dangerous to others.

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