Tuesday, January 17, 2006

To Be or Not to Be: Whose Question is it?

Today the Supreme Court made a landmark decision regarding physician-assisted suicide.

I recognize that the Court has ruled that there is no Constitutional right to die, but the Declaration of Independence grants us "the right to life." Death, however, is just part of living; if I have a right to live, then surely I must also have the right to decide whether to keep on living.

Law is rooted in compassion. Every single law boils down to humanity trying to protect itself from suffering. This is how we tell just laws from unjust: do they relieve or contribute to suffering?

The conservative dissenters in this case argue that the Government has the power to outlaw physician-assisted suicide because of the Controlled Substances Act, but that is a law that is meant to protect people from illicit drug use because of the obvious suffering it causes.

Physician-assisted suicide, however, relieves suffering. Therefore, the dissent in this case clearly flunks the compassion litmus test.

"Suicide is immoral!" they cry in response. When they say "immoral," they mean "sin." It is not the Government's job to codify sins. So let us leave the Supreme Court for a minute, since the majority got it right anyway, and discuss the morality of suicide.

What if I argued that the real sin is despair?

"Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt," wrote J.R.R. Tolkien through the voice of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Despair is a sin because it is a rejection of God's perpetual offer of mercy, a lack of trust in His divine will and a refusal to humble oneself to circumstances and petition for the Spirit's assistance, which is never denied. Such a decision is in fact "the Fall" depicted in Genesis; it wasn't that the fruit was forbidden for no reason, it was that the Serpent promised Eve that she would "become like God." If you are like God, you don't need God. A person who commits suicide out of despair is declaring he does not need God.

There's a big difference, though, between someone who is depressed and doesn’t know where to turn and someone who is terminally ill.

What if you do see the end? “It is wisdom to recognise necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope,” says Gandalf.

Some would argue that through faith doctors can be proven wrong and diseases can be cured. No doubt. But they are the ones that Gandalf says are "clinging to false hope." Look around. Who among us is still alive because of their faith? I'm not saying prayer can't cure illness. What I am saying is that everyone dies. Everyone. Death is not God's judgment. Death is not a failure of faith. Didn't the Pope just die? Even the saints are all dead. (And most of them had horrible deaths.)

Why must death be long and difficult? What is so immoral about sparing yourself indescribable, inevitable misery? Is it a sin to choose the manner of your exit? If your attitude is, “Thank you, God, for a wonderful life, now I’m ready…here I come!” is that wrong?

The thing that galls me the most about the legal controversy is that this is a fundamental issue of personal liberty. There is not one “right” way to think about this issue. Your answer to my last question could most certainly and justifiably be an adamant “Yes!”

No one is going to force you to commit suicide against your will; but John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush and Antonin Scalia think they have the right to compel you to linger in suffering. To be, or not to be? That's your decision.

* I realize the court did not rule on the Oregon law itself, but rather held that the A.G. did not have Constitutional authority to intervene.


Esther said...

Okay, I am going to argue this from a Christian perspective because we are both Christians so I can do that.

First off God allows suffering and suffering is a result of sin's effects on the world. Nowhere did Jesus say that it is a sin to suffer. I know that you did not expressly state that, but that is what your reasoning comes to. Jesus gave us the example of his own suffering and told us that we would have to suffer as well. Really though, it looks to me like you are asking the Bible to conform to your own opinion.

Second, have you ever known someone who committed suicide? Suicide is the single most selfish act a person could perform. It leaves everyone who cares for that person out of the picture. It hurts those who love that person in a way that can never be healed.

Third, even terminally ill people can make some difference in the life of another. I knew a woman who passed away this past summer. She went through eight years of chemo and radiation therapy for a very painful form of cancer. She could have decided to end her life years before I and my friends met her. But she made such a difference in our lives because she kept fighting that cancer until the very end and she had such a beautiful attitude toward her own trials. It's a personal anecdote, I know, but it fits. Suffering is not the be all and end all, it is not the evil that sin is, it is the evil that sin causes. Life itself includes much suffering. The Bible calls it "the great tribulation." Listening to the logic you give justifies mass murder because then those people will not have to suffer anymore.

Yes, despair is a sin, but one does not have to despair just because one suffers.

In short, Jesus did not come to relieve suffering but to redeem us from sin. Suffering often teaches us things that living a perfect life could not. Suicide teaches nothing to anyone, not even the person who commits it. Committing suicide is to take one's life into one's own hands because one refuses to trust God, it is a sin itself and it's results are indescribably painful to others. I am sorry that the Courts even have to rule on this subject. I think it ought not become a part of national law at all, but there it is. Times are strange.

Andy said...

And Esther, I completely agree with you on most of this. But the Constitution guarantees people the right to have their own thoughts on matters like this. What if someone just doesn't believe in God? They have the right not to, and they ought to have the right to end their lives if that is where their conscience leads them.

Also, I do disagree that the suicide of a terminally ill person creates suffering for the family; in fact, I think it's probably a big relief.

Jean F. said...

Since I live in Oregon, this issue is before us regularly in the news. I personally have always believed that God will take you when He feels it is the right time and to take your own life before that means you don't believe in and trust God. However, having said that, I watched several women who have terminal diseases receive the news the other night and they alternately wept and expressed great joy that they would still have the ability to end their lives when they are ready. It was truly great relief I saw on those faces and it did make me stop and think. I'm sure we all know people who have shown great courage and strength fighting incurable diseases, but we don't all possess that ability or desire. I think Oregon has made the compassionate decision.

little-cicero said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
little-cicero said...


I'm not talking yet about the subject matter, but this line "Law is rooted in compassion. Every single law boils down to humanity trying to protect itself from suffering. This is how we tell just laws from unjust: do they relieve or contribute to suffering?" Is not true. What you are discussing is fairness, which may be the basis of rules, but not laws. For example, it may be just to send a criminal to prison because it is punishment for a crime he committed, but it causes him suffering. If you avert the suffering by releasing the man, you may be fair in doing so, but you are not being just, are you? Though certainly laws ought to be based in justice, to say that they should be based in fairness is a perversion of both justice and law. Fairness and justice are thus not to be confused, as they are by many overly sympathetic judges. What say you?

Andy said...

Have you been drinking Pepsi again? I warned you about that.

Presumably the person is in prison because it was determined that s/he inflicted suffering in some way upon someone. A law that cannot be enforced in some meaningful way has no weight. Also presumably the punishment does not result in suffering disproportionate to the crime that was committed, hence the Constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual" punishments and other federal and state sentencing guidelines. That's kind of a no-brainer, L-C. If you're attempting to dispute my assertion that law is based on compassion, you need to do better than that!

Furthermore, I honestly fail to understand your repeated opinion that there is some sort of fundamental difference between justice and fairness. How can "justice" be "unfair"? It's nonsensical. I mean, definition #1 of "justice" in the dictionary is "The quality of being just; fairness."

little-cicero said...

It is true that there are no victimless crimes, but you could also assume that there are no criminals without victimhood. Every criminal can in some way be considered a victim of fortune and circumstance, but that makes them no less subject to justice. Also, the family of the criminal suffers as well from his punishment, so if justice was based on the suffering of all connected with the given situation, you would have to take his children (poor fatherless children) into account when deciding the sentence. That is the subjective nature of compassion. Fairness is equally subjective in that it is based on the suffering of individuals, whereas justice is based on the ethic or moral rectitude of their actions.

Not to get into semantics, but the word "just" means

1 a : having a basis in or conforming to fact or reason : REASONABLE (a just but not a generous decision) b archaic : faithful to an original c : conforming to a standard of correctness : PROPER (just proportions)2 a (1) : acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good : RIGHTEOUS (a just war) (2) : being what is merited : DESERVED (a just punishment) b : legally correct : LAWFUL (just title to an estate)

The word fair means

1 : pleasing to the eye or mind especially because of fresh, charming, or flawless quality
2 : superficially pleasing : SPECIOUS (she trusted his fair promises)
3 a : CLEAN, PURE (fair sparkling water) b : CLEAR, LEGIBLE
4 : not stormy or foul : FINE (fair weather)
5 : AMPLE (a fair estate)
6 a : marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism (a very fair person to do business with) b (1) : conforming with the established rules : ALLOWED c : open to legitimate pursuit, attack, or ridicule (fair game)

DJRainDog said...

Oh, darling little Cicero...It becomes clearer to me here why you've such sympathies for Kaiser Shrub: You're both just bent on calling that group of trees ANYTHING BUT a forest, aren't you? (All this hair-splitting...Where's my stylist when I need her?)

little-cicero said...

Why do you need a hair stylist? Isn't that what conditioner is for?

little-cicero said...

Oh, by the way, that justice vs. fairness thing has nothing to do with my president, it has to do with strict constructionism vs. judicial activism.