AT ONE TIME or another most of us have contemplated suicide, sometimes pretty seriously. Perhaps we have spilled a bottle of pills into our hand and stared at them -- so ordinary, so lethal. Or when we've driven fast on the Beltway, maybe we've thought about aiming for one of those abutments, closing our eyes, and pressing the accelerator all the way down. And there are those nice fast Metro trains. A few years ago a young woman -- she was only 23 -- lay down on the Metro tracks and waited for the onrushing train to release her into death. She accomplished what she had been wanting and trying to do for 10 years. She did what most of us think about but don't do.
There are reasons why we sigh and put the pills back in the bottle and why we stand back from the edge when we feel the pull of death urging us to leap out, to jump into that sweet abyss of blackness and nothingness.
We don't do it, because we're scared. What if we botch it and wake up like Karen Anne Quinlan or paralyze ourselves for life? We don't do it, because whatever the mists of misery that got us thinking about suicide in the first place, we reluctantly see through them a dim ray of future pleasure. Or at least we acknowledge the hope that things might get better because they can't get much worse. And we don't do it because we have been taught that suicide is wrong, that it's a sin -- a major sin. Our families will be left with the stigma of shame, and who knows what punishment will be visited on us after death if we kill ourselves.
It's the last reason -- the morality one -- that warrants thought. Suicide is not always wrong and indeed frequently may be the right thing to do. The trouble in thinking about this clearly is that God and religion always enter the discussion, and there's no way to keep them out.
Birth and death are the two matters that people believe are under the direct, if perhaps not total, control of God. Since the vast majority of the people on earth believe in God or gods and since all religion is based primarily on the existence of God, we're all affected to one degree or another by the existence of devine and religious beliefs. If we never set foot in a synagogue, church or mosque, the pervasiveness of religion affects our attitudes about the morality of suicide. When pressed for a particular reason why suicide is wrong, many people dredge up some vague sense of sin or a fear of the wrath of God.
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century philosopher and theologian on whose beliefs most of the modern concepts of the morality of suicide are based, was not the least bit vague when he condemned suicide as "altogether unlawful." He stated three specific reasons. First, he said that suicide is a mortal sin because it is contrary to the natural law of wanting to remain "in being." Second, every person is a part of the community, and by killing himself he injures the community. Third, whoever takes his own life sins against God, who has the sole power to give and take life.
With all due respect to Aquinas and his modern-day followers -- and there are a lot of them, at least with regard to his views on suicide -- his reasoning is illogical and inconsistent and therefore won't wash with the person who is desperate and looking for a reason to remain alive.
In answer to Aquinas' strongest argument, there is an equally valid claim that each person has the right to dispose of his own life as he sees fit. Life is indeed a gift from God, there is even more reason to be in total control over the disposal of that life. Gifts are one-way transactions; if we are at all obligated to take some action or other in gratitude for a gift, then the obligation would surely be to use it wisely and well. Moreover, if Aquinas' premise about the divine ownership of life is correct, then any cause of death may be interpreted as God's will. If God ordains everything, then the act of plunging a knife into one's heart surely can be seen as divinely commanded, as can any other death -- natural or accidental. There may be differences on a human level, that is, the intent of the actions, but if all death is divinely controlled and originated, it is thus all the will of God regardless of how it occurs.
Talking about natural law is like playing catch with a cake of wet soap. As soon as you think you've "got" it, it slips away. Suicide and human nature is like that. Death by one's own hand may not be contrary to natural law, and the church and fundamentlist groups might be wrong about this and other supposedly "natural" human actions. Human beings are the only species that consciously set out to kill themselves, and they are doing it in record numbers. If self-preservation is natural law, then the approximately 25,000 people who kill themselves in the United States each year give lie to the fact that it is an immutable law in humans. Perhaps the tendency to suicide is one of the natural characteristics that differentiates human life from all other life. If, as Aquinas and the fundamentalists claim, God controls all occurrences in the universe and everything happens in it divinely appointed time and place, then all people who commit suicide are divinely intended to do so and are thus part of the natural order. If these 25,000 yearly suicides were offensive to God, one would think that all suicides would be forestalled. But since God has not intervened in this manner, we have further reason to believe that perhaps suicide is indeed natural in humans.
John Stuart Mill, an 18th-century philosopher, wrote extensively about personal and political liberty and autonomy, including the right to live and die as one chooses provided no one else is harmed. His 200-year-old concerns are right on target today in view of the rapid rise in American suicides, particularly among adolescents and adults under 30. Many are angry and even sickened when such young people kill themselves, especially when they do it as a result of despair that will be temporary -- failure in school, the breakup of a love affair, loss of a job. These angry ones sometimes say that potential suicides should be prevented from following through with their intentions. In many cases they are wrong.
Death sometimes is preferable to a life of continued pain and misery, and not all suicides occur in moments of despair. It seems obvious that so mementous a decision should not be made in a time of great stress, but suicide can be a rational choice. Sometimes though, perhaps even frequently, suicide is a result of irrationality, and this creates a morally interesting paradox: If suicide can be rational but sometimes is not, when, if ever, is it permissible to restrain someone from killing himself?
Mill provides one possible answer in his essay "On Libery":
"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forebear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others to do so would be wise or even right."
Here he favors total autonomy and condones even those actions that would be clearly self-destructive. But he goes on to say that there are reasons for remonstrating, reasoning, persuading or entreating a person to refrain from an action. Thus, it appears that Mill would be willing to staff a suicide hot line but would not trace the call of someone who told the crisis worker that he had just taken all his pills.
So if we believe Mill, and if we see the obvious flaws in Aquinas' logic, are we supposed to close our eyes to potential suicides, to say to a friend in despair, "Life is rotten. Maybe you would be better off dead, and it's certainly your right to kill yourself if that's what you want." How heartless. How unfeeling. But it is wrong?
If it is true that free people must have the liberty to control their own lives, no matter how foolish their choices, and if it is also true that as human beings we are obligated to help others, especially those whom we love, what are we to do? Suppose there are some suicidal acts that are carefully thought out, where the alternative to death is a life of such misery or pain that it would be worse than death: for example, when a person with a terminal illness faces only increasing agony. A person in this category who is clearly aware of what alternative lie in each direction and has led a rational life should not be interfered with. If there is no reasonalbe hope for a life filled with the kinds of activities the person desires, and if he prefers the nothingness of death to present and future misery, then none of us has the right to stay his hand.
But what of the person who attempt suicide in a moment of great despair that will in all likelihood be temporary? Should such persons be restrained from killing themselves? I believe the answer is yes -- for a while. But then we run smack into the question of for how long and what kind of restraints can be used. If we pull a person off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, do we slap him into a straitjacket and lock him up, or do we say, "Now, now. Why don't you just go home and think this over calmly" -- and leave him to his own devices?
The answer is neither -- or either. It all depends on whether the action will ultimately increase the person's ability to make a rational decision for himself. The only permissible temporal or physical restraints that can be placed on a suicidal person are those that are productive of the goal of autonomy and rational liberty. Locking someone behind hospital bars is not likely to achieve that end, although voluntary psychotherapy might well do so. Plucking someone off the bridge and setting him on more solid footing can provide a choice to rethink his decision; he is then free to climb back up on the bridge and jump off if he chooses.
But what about our obligation to help others? Some would say, "You can't just stand there and let him jump." Yes, you can if -- and this is a big if -- he freely chooses to do it. It is true that a person who is attempting suicide in a moment of grreat despair and irrationality is as needful of help for that moment as is the person trapped in a burning building. Emotional pain severe enough to lead to suicide is as agonizing as the most severe physical pain; thus one is indeed morally obligated to provide emergency help -- to flush the pills away and to ask, "Is this what you really want?" If it is, there are plenty of drugstores out there to provide more pills (and plenty of physicians more than willing to write prescriptions for almost anything). Suicide might well be the ultimate release from mental pain, but other forms of such release exist, and we should help others to recognize other avenues of escape from that pain. But if it turns out in the cool light of rational thought that suicide is the most desirable course of action, then the person must be permitted to exercise that freedom, regardless of how much pain and suffering it causes friends and family, pain often compounded by a highly moralistic society that treats all suicides as morally blameworthy.
Suicide may indeed be studpid and it may be a wast of good life. It is frequently a tragedy and sometimes unnecessary. But it is not morally wrong.