Over the past ten to twenty years a big issue has been made over a persons right to commit suicide or not. The American courts have had to deal with everything from assisted suicides to planned suicides, and whether the constitution gives the American people the right to take their own lives or whether it says they have the power to allow someone else to take their lives. They have had to determine in some cases whether or not homicide charges needed to be brought up and others times whether or not it was done for an underlying reason such as insurance fraud.
There are several aspects to suicide and the law, but we are only going to discuss a few of them. First of all we will examine why anyone would want to take their own life and decipher the differences between a rational suicide and an irrational suicide. Secondly we will look at ways assistance has played in the area of suicide. Next, we’ll look at what the constitution says and see if any of the states have allowed suicide. Finally, we’ll study some of the cases that have been brought before the American courts.
Suicide has become a big part of American society, year after year more people are taking their own lives for many different reasons. A lot of philosophers have broken down all the reasons of suicides into two different categories, rational suicide and irrational suicide. A rational suicide has been given five basic criteria that usually must be met for the person’s act to be considered rational. The five criteria which a person must show for their suicide to be considered rational are, “the ability to reason, realistic world view, adequacy of information, avoidance of harm, and accordance with fundamental interests.”(Battin 132) Another opinion of rationality of suicide is, “it is the best thing for him from the point of view of his own welfare-or whether it is the best thing for someone being advised, from the point of view of that person’s welfare”(Brandt 118). People have to characterize suicides because a lot of times they don’t understand what that person is going through so by grouping them and placing criteria on them it allows them to accept it in an easier manner.
A lot of suicides are grouped in the rational category because they are committed so the person can be saved from the pain they may be experiencing from a terminal disease. This seems to be just about the only true rational and morally correct reason why a person should commit suicide. Yet a lot of times these patients are “heavily sedated, so that it is impossible for the mental processes of decision leading to action to occur.”(Brandt 123) In other words these patients have a rational reason to commit suicide, yet their mind is not capable of making that decision.
So if terminally ill patients are the only ones who have a good rational reason to commit suicide, then where does that leave everyone else? Well just about everyone else commits suicide because of a little thing that enters everyone’s life at some time and that thing is called depression. Depression can come from several different things, such as a loss of something like a job, a loved one, a limb such as an arm or leg, or anything else that might be held dear to that person. Other things could be rejection at home or in the work place, abuse, and sometimes even the thought of getting old and not wanting to know what tomorrow holds in store. There are alot of arguments that these are rational reasons but just because you are having a bad day doesn’t actually mean you have a rational reason to go out and throw yourself off a building or tie a rope around your neck.
Another big issue about suicide today is the one that deals with assisted suicide. When we think about this the first person who pops in our mind is Dr. Jack Kervorkian. Yet Kervorkian was not the first, “The Hemlock Society was founded by Derek Humphry, a british journalist, in Los Angeles in 1980. The organization advocated active euthanasia, or aiding the death of a hopelessly ill individual.”(Long 76) This society was responsible for several deaths because of their “listing of lethal doses of eighteen commonly prescribed drugs and a manual on suicide, which quickly became a best-seller.”(Long 76)
Dr. Kervorkian is probably the most famous man in America when it comes to assisted suicide. His cases and his defiance of the law have kept him the spotlight in the American media and has really brought the issue of do Americans have the right to take their own lives, and if so is it the legal responsibility of a physician to assist his or her patient if they are asked. Dr. Kervorkian says yes.
Assisted suicide is where a patient that is terminally ill comes to a physician or even a friend or family member at times and asks them to help end their life. There are several different ways to assist someone in suicide, you can inject them with a lethal amount of drugs, you can turn off their machines that is helping keep them alive, there have even been cases where the friend has put a bullet in the person’s body.
The big question in America is whether or not you have the constitutional, or moral, right to commit suicide. There have been very strong arguments for both cases. Joel Feinberg argues that the constitution does not give us that right simply because of Thomas Jefferson’s famous words “that all men are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life…” He says “How could a person have a right to terminate his own life (by his own hand or the hand of another) if his right to life is inalienable?…”(Mayo 224).
He makes a good argument, by saying that it does, would infringe on our right to live that the founding fathers said was ours and that there was no one who could take that right away from us not even ourselves. Feinberg probably says it best when he says, “The ‘right to life’ is essentially a duty, but expressible in the language of rights because the derivative claims against others that they save or not kill one are necessarily beneficial-goods that one could not rationally forswear. The right therefore must always be ‘exercised’ and can never be ‘waived.’ Anyone who could wish to waive it must simply be ignorant of what is good for him.”(Mayo 225) What he is saying here is that you can not just decide you want to kill yourself. This is a right given to you by the constitution and it is established to protect you from anyone who wants to cause harm to you, even yourself. And anyone who wants to bring harm upon themselves has something wrong with them and, thereore, needs to be protected from themselves.
Yet others have had a strong argument for the other side also, and their interpretation of the constitution is totally different. Alan Sullivan argues for this point by saying “that the U.S. law has never addressed this issue squarely. On the one hand, the Constitution protects the right of self-determination in many significant matters of personal choice, including choices involving treatment of one’s own body. On the other hand, the law also appears to recognize state interests in preventing suicide. Because the Supreme Court has never spelled out the principle determining which personal choices are protected from state interference and which are not, the Court cannot be said to have taken a stand on the issue of suicide. The only resolution to this problem is to go in favor of a right to self-determination in the matter of suicide, subject to appropriate tests of competency.”(Mayo 229)
What Sullivan is saying is that the Constitution has given us the right to have self-determination over matters in our life. The first amendment alone gives us the freedom to determine what religion we want to believe in, and the right to say what we want when we want to say it. The fourteenth amendment gives us the right to determine what we want for ourselves. Sullivan says, “That suicide is a ‘fundamental right’ and those are explicitly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court has recognized another class of fundamental right whose source lies outside specific guarantees of the Constitution, such as the rights to marital and sexual privacy, the right of a woman to exercise control over her body, the right to travel freely from one place to another, and the right to learn certain subjects in school.”(Mayo 232) Sullivan feels the right to take your own life falls into this category of fundamental rights. Yet he does put a stipulation on the right to suicide and that is what he said about showing signs of competency. He just wants to make sure that the person who is about to take his own life is of sound mind and will not do unnecessary harm to himself or anyone else that is around him.
Yet the law really can’t do anything to someone who has killed themselves. The place that the law has really played a major role in American society is in assisted suicides. There have been many cases where family members and friends have been prosecuted for aiding or assisting in a suicide. One of the most famous cases was the People vs. Roberts. According to Leslie Pickering Francis, “It occurred in Michigan, in 1920, Frank Robert’s wife was incurably ill and bedridden with Multiple Sclerosis. At her request, he mixed poison and left it by her bedside; she drank the poison quite clearly knowing what she was doing. The Michigan Supreme court affirmed Robert’s conviction of murder, reasoning that he had intended his wife to be able to take her life as she wished, and that she would have been unable to do so without his aid.”(Mayo 255)
The law has been determined by the states and the states alone, the Supreme Court has not interfered yet. The states have done one of three things says Francis, “First, twenty-five states, including nine with recent penal code revisions, contain no separate statutory treatment of assisting suicide. Only a few of these have passed on the question of whether assisting suicide falls within their criminal homicide statutes. Of those states which have, most, like Michigan, have argued that assisting suicide is murder. A second approach is to make assisting suicide a form of manslaughter… The third approach is to treat assisting suicide as a separate statutory offense altogether.”(Mayo 256) This approach has led to what is called the Model Penal Code-
Section 210.5. Causing or Aiding Suicide
(1) Causing Suicide as Criminal Homicide. A person may be convicted of criminal homicide for causing another to commit suicide only if he purposely causes such suicide by force, duress of deception.
(2) Aiding or Soliciting Suicide as an Independent Offense. A person who purposely aids or solicits another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony of the second degree if his conduct causes such suicide or an attempted suicide, and otherwise of a misdemeanor.
Each state has adopted their own policy and as you can see some have not even taken a stand on the issue. They have just let it hang in the wind and hope that nothing ever comes of assisted suicide. Yet the one place states have been lenient on is that in the case of families turning life support systems off. This happens everyday in our society and it usually is left up to the families and friends in deciding the fate of a loved one who has slipped into na irreversible coma or is technically brain dead.
Suicide is a very touchy situation to most people. Almost everybody has known or heard of someone they knew, that has committed suicide. And a lot of us will have to deal with it again. Yet do we have the right to take our own life. There are arguments for both yet it comes down to your beliefs not only in the law but also in your morals. The Bible says in Phillipians 1:20-24:
Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
William V. Rauscher sums this passage up very well by saying, “The phrase in Paul’s letter that interests me the most at this point is ‘to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. I have emphasized ‘on your account’ because is seems to me that this is the key to the whole of Jesus’ teaching about both life and death. The suffering that Paul knew he would be called upon to endure so long as he remained alive was not for himself. Suicide was, indeed, a tempting ‘way out’ of continued suffering. But he refused to choose it because of his conviction that his life and his service were intended to be for others-‘on your account.'”(Rauchser 104-5)
As of now you have the right to commit suicide anytime you want. Yet depending on what state you live on you could be punished by the law for assisting in a suicide. Only time can tell what will become of suicide and the law. Today there are still cases in the court battling to try and legalize assisted suicide. suicide is not the way out of everything though. I understand in some cases that it might be the best thing , like saving a loved one from excruciating pain yet nothing can be so bad that it deserves taking your own life. Words
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