Family–Supported Suicide and the Duty to Die

By March 24, 2015 Recent News

First Things 20 March 2015
In 1991, my friend Frances invited me to a “going away party.” She wasn’t moving or going on vacation. Frances wanted her closest friends to come to her home, to tell her how much she meant to us, and to hold her hand as she committed suicide.
We refused. Validating Frances’s suicide was unthinkable. We supported her life, not her death.
After an intervention, she called the suicide off. But Frances was in the thrall of the then–nascent “death with dignity” movement. A year later, having been diagnosed with treatable leukemia, she paid a cousin to accompany her to a hotel where she took a lethal overdose and placed a plastic bag over her head—following instructions published in the Hemlock Quarterly. (Frances’s suicide became the subject of my first anti-euthanasia column, published by Newsweek in 1993.)
Times have changed. It is increasingly common for friends and family to support—and even to attend—the suicides of their ill, disabled, or despairing loved ones. Brittany Maynard’s husband and mother, for instance, fully backed her assisted suicide and are now on the advocacy circuit promoting its legalization.
Maynard’s case is hardly unique. When English teenager Daniel James was paralyzed playing rugby, he became distraught and suicidal. In 2008, his parents flew him to a Swiss suicide clinic. They later defended their participation in his death as an act of love, telling the media that their son “was not prepared to live what he felt was a second-class existence.”
In Belgium, elderly couples have been euthanized together because they would rather die than face future widowhood. Astonishingly, these joint killings have been supported by family and friends. In one reported case, the death doctor was procured by the couple’s son—even though his folks were not ill. Similarly, the English conductor Sir Edward Downes died with his cancer-stricken wife Joan at a Swiss suicide clinic, a decision quickly endorsed in the media by their children.
Most recently, NPR-syndicated radio personality Diane Rehm very publicly supported her husband John’s suicide by self-starvation—a process known in euthanasia advocacy as (voluntary stopping eating and drinking). She told the New York Times that they had made a pact to help the other die if suffering seriously with a terminal illness. (John had Parkinson’s disease.) “There was no question but that I would support him and honor whatever choice he would make,”she said. “As painful as it was, it was his wish.” Rehm, like Maynard’s family, is now using her experience as an argument in favor of assisted-suicide legalization.
Is it right or wrong to support a loved one’s suicide? This seems to be one of those issues, increasingly prevalent in our society, about which debate is not possible: The answer depends on one’s overarching worldview. Some will believe that their duty is to support their family member’s choice, come what may. Others, including this writer, believe that supporting suicide is an abandonment that validates loved ones’ worst fears about themselves—that they are a burden, unworthy of love, or truly better off dead.