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An option we should consider.

October 9, 2013

As I wrote in my last post, I have known three people who killed themselves because of what they undoubtedly considered intolerable suffering.  In this post I am going to discuss some more graphic aspects of these choices and the alternatives we, as a society, should offer.  If this will be too much for you, you might ought to stop here.

I read an article today about a 44 year old Belgian man who chose euthanasia to end his life due to “unbearable psychological suffering.”  Upon doing further research, I found that Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg are the only countries in the world allowing euthanasia.  Euthanasia is where a doctor actually administers the drugs to end the person’s life.  This differs from physician assisted suicide which is legal in the states of Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.  Physician assisted suicide is when a doctor prescribes a lethal amount of medication to a patient (the laws in these states require that the patient be terminally ill) who wants to end his or her life.  The patient is then free to use the medication to end his or her life.  Montana also allows physician assisted suicide based on a court ruling (Baxter v. Montana).  Belgium’s law is unique in that it allows a patient to choose euthanasia in cases where no terminal illness is present.  A patient who successfully makes the case that his or her psychological suffering is intolerable, with the approval of three doctors, may choose this treatment.

September 13, 2013 my brother’s ex-partner, a man I had known and cared for for over 15 years, shot himself in the head on the side of a road in Pennsylvania.  After his death it became clear from a note found in his car and his actions in the last days of his life that this was an action long planned.  We had watched him become more depressed and remote over the last two years, but he consistently refused to seek medical assistance and isolated himself from almost everyone he knew.  He had told my brother he didn’t want to “start over.”  The meaning of this statement became more clear after his death.  He had suffered from recurrent episodes of major depressive disorder.  He had managed with treatment to pull himself out at least two times in the past.  When the depression returned this time, I think the thought of having to go through it all again was too much.  Having been through episodes of severe depression myself, I can understand his feelings.

The others I knew who killed themselves went through similar recurrent episodes of depression.  They availed themselves of treatment, but were unable to find lasting relief.  They suffered for many  years before making the decision to end it this way.  They did not “take the easy way out” as those hostile to suicide so often call it.  When one seriously considers suicide, it is not an easy decision.  It is one that is absolutely agonizing.  You don’t do this because you don’t care about how it hurts others, you do it because you have to end the terrible suffering.  My brother-in-law’s letter was filled with apology and regret for leaving people he knew would miss him.  He explained that he had pushed people away so they would not feel as much attachment to him.

Why is it that we don’t offer an alternative such as that Belgium offers?  That someone who has suffered for a long time and is unable to endure more has to blow his brains out by the highway or take a bunch of pills and hide behind the bushes in a park is a terrible thing.  Why can’t it be an option to die comfortably, without violence and fear of discovery?  Why don’t we treat this as a choice?  Most arguments against suicide are based in religious beliefs.  But if there is a God, why would God not understand suffering and allow one to end it.  Why would God not forgive?  More importantly, why should we as a country legislate the religious views of some to rule all?  I would have been terribly sad about my friends choosing to die in this way, but so much less than the shock at the violence in the ways they ultimately chose.

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