Who Owns Your Death?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we all gotta go sometime.
By Eugene S. Robinson
A friend had tried to kill himself. Four times in a row. To have four suicide attempts you must at first have three failed suicides. As he lay unmoving on the porcelain floor of his San Francisco bathroom though, the burnt spoon on the sink edge and a needle in his arm, the options for dealing with his first, heroin-fueled suicide attempt, were all over the place.
Leave him as he lay — he had long professed an interest in ending his life — or, bring him back from the brink. And if we were to bring him back from the brink, how so? We were advised to call 911, an option that was less appealing to those who also didn’t find the option of speaking to the police appealing.
“They won’t bother you,” said a doctor friend we had called for advice. The cops didn’t show, the paramedics did, but according to cop friends the only thing that would have impinged on our friend’s desire to end his life would have been the almost 30-year-old 5150 Welfare and Institutions Codes, which would allow the cops to pick up potential suicides – who are dangers to themselves or others – and take them “into custody for a period of up to 72 hours for assessment, evaluation and crisis intervention.”
We, however – if a case could have been made that we didn’t do enough to prevent his trying to die – could have been charged under Penal Code 401, a felony for aiding, advising or encouraging a suicide. Unless we were physicians and then in the realm of physician-assisted suicides – which has been bouncing around global courts as people try to get their heads around end-of-life issues – we could have claimed cover.
In any case, in America, while for a long time suicide was considered a felony, no one ever thought it made sense to arrest dead people …
In any case, in America, while for a long time suicide was considered a felony, no one ever thought it made sense to arrest dead people, so enforcement against unsuccessful attempts largely lapsed and morphed into the aforementioned PC401. And in India, for example, with a population of 1.35 billion and a suicide rate that, according to The Lancet journal of medicine, is 37 percent of global suicides for women and 24 percent for men (in 2016 that amounted to about 230,000 people), attempted suicide was just decriminalized in July 2018, leaving only 23 countries that have criminalized suicide (no mention of how the penalties will be enforced).
Undergirding all of this and the fits and starts about how we choose to both live and die, presuming it’s chosen by us and not for us, is the unasked and almost unanswered question: Whose life is it anyway? Or asked another way, what business is it of any state actor what we do with our lives?
Your parents, ideally, the first owners of you, are usually charged with creating the owner’s manual for you up to the so-called age of reason but once there, we tend to take over. Our ownership not be called into question unless we run afoul of standard plans, or join the military.
So, if we’re moving away from a conception of suicide as being a product of an ill mind, like we are when we sign on to those with terminal illnesses exercising their choice to be free of their suffering, is it much of a jump to consider that choosing to not live might be the product of a healthy mind? A healthy mind making a principled decision about when to shuffle off of this stage we’re thrust onto even if it interferes with the state’s estimation of the total worth of our social value as a worker, parent, or at the very least, participant?
… [Hendrix] dead at 27 from disputed circumstances that involved 18 times the recommended dosage of sleeping pills, alcohol and inhaled vomit.
“Humans are ends to themselves and can’t be used as a means to ending misery because we have absolute worth,” says Nietzsche scholar Josefine Nauckhoff about the violation of Kant’s categorical imperative. “Also, if everyone kills themselves there’d be no one left to kill themselves. But is a healthy mind a rational mind? You really mean ‘is suicide rational?’ right? Kant would say, ‘no.’”
And the state, despite the ambivalence around punishments, concurs and clearly thinks it’s irrational and like all irrationality it threatens social order. But how rational are our lives to begin with?
Rational enough, we’d guess, to decide very precisely when we’ve had enough, which we should be able to do without sanction, providing we’re not creating more chaos – unpaid debts, unparented children – than we’re cooling out with our premature exits. And even if the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention puts the annual social costs of suicide at $69 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2016, money isn’t everything, certainly not when measured against the invisible costs of being forced to live.
No, life, despite us having no say early on, should be fully voluntary. “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die,” said guitar great Jimi Hendrix, himself dead at 27 from disputed circumstances that involved 18 times the recommended dosage of sleeping pills, alcohol and inhaled vomit. “So why can’t I live my life, the way I want to?”
Good question and even better if the answer is, to both the living and dying part: you can.