Friday, May 06, 2011

Elderly woman sells suicide kits online, reveals interesting new angle in Right-to-Die debate [updated]

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Live Or Let Die?

Anyone who’s been following my writings for a long time will probably know that I’m a strong advocate of people’s right to die, if it’s a choice they make deliberately and rationally. The argument is not only empathetic (there’s no reason to cling to a life of unbearable agony if you have the ability to end it on your own terms), but also logical; if people have a right to live, then it naturally follows that they have the right to end their lives as well (though the devil is certainly in the details).

However, there’s an interesting case in the news that brings up a number of questions pertaining to the moral/ethical limits of providing assisted suicide services, especially in a manner where just anyone could potentially take advantage of them. An elderly woman in La Mesa, California, is currently the center of a media storm over her selling “suicide kits” online, one of which has already been used by at least one person. KGTV San Diego reports:

LA MESA, Calif. -- A 91-year-old East County grandmother is getting national attention for making suicide kits. The woman, who we're calling 'Charlotte,' started making the kits after watching her husband die a slow, painful death from colon cancer.

"I'm doing what I can to improve the world," she told 10News. "There's a lot of heartache and difficulty here."

Charlotte makes the kits -- which cost buyers $60 -- by taking large plastic bags and sewing soft elastic bands around the opening. There is a slot in the bag for a plastic tube carrying helium gas to be inserted. Helium -- when inhaled in its pure form -- is deadly. Kit users are responsible for securing their own helium gas.

The only reason “Charlotte” isn’t telling her story from behind bars is because of a loophole in California law. So, naturally, there’s a motion afoot to plug it:

[…] an Oregon lawmaker has put forward a bill to make selling the kits a felony in the state.


A representative for local Rep. Duncan Hunter told 10News: "It's the responsibility of the state to limit the sale of certain items for the purpose of assisted suicides … The reality is that most states, including California, have not enacted the relevant laws to deal with this problem …"

Now, I may be all for offering a painless exit to those who are terminally ill, long-suffering, or otherwise unable to have any sort of decent quality of life, but I do have some serious qualms over offering something like this to people who are only temporarily suicidal, suffering through momentary bouts of depression that are sure to get better with time and support from loved ones. I’m really not sure whether I should support or condemn “Charlotte”’s initiative; obviously, offering people a way to end their own lives on their own terms is something that I consider to be a noble gesture, given the rarity of people who are able or willing to offer such services to those who truly need or deserve it. But then, giving people a way to quickly kill themselves when they don’t really need to do so, especially in cases where a quick exit is just what some people might jump at without thinking it through, seems wrong on a number of levels.

In the end, though, I’m really only in favor of assisted suicide when the receiver of such a service is in a state where they are able to make a conscious, sane, rational decision to end their lives, either to escape some sort of intractable and unending suffering, or when they simply make the choice to stop living, for whatever reason suits them. But if someone is just undergoing a particularly rough patch but with clear exits from their unhappiness that don’t necessitate death, I’d much rather they just get the help they need from appropriate medical professionals, rather than seize the first chance they get to end it all and end up depriving their friends and family of the chance to be with them once the dark times had finally passed.

Based on this, I would argue that ventures such as “Charlotte”’s should be prohibited. But then, this would also prevent people who really should be allowed to die to do so in relative comfort. So, in the end, I guess I’m stuck on this.

Your thoughts?

(via The Daily Grail)

UPDATE: (06/14/11 1:57 AM) – Oregon House passes bill criminalizing the sale or distribution of “suicide kits” countrywide.