December 5, 2020

We Need the Right to Die on Our Own Terms

skull death

This is not a suicide note. I'm not ready to die just yet. There are still a few things I'd like to do first. This is also not some sort of abstract thought experiment in which I write about something to clarify my thoughts or try to provoke thought among my readers (although it would be great if it managed to do so). I've been thinking about this subject for a while now, and I mean what I am about to say.

When it comes to death, there is something I very much want for myself and for each of you: the option to die with dignity when we decide we are ready. I'm not talking about our families having the option to pull the plug without conservative politicians interfering, although I'd like us to have that right too. No, I am talking about something far more controversial than turning off the life support.

The option I want for myself, you see, is active euthanasia (i.e., physician-assisted suicide). Should I decide that I'm ready to go in order to spare myself some pain and suffering, I'd like the option of a lethal injection. We do this for our pets and recognize it as a compassionate act. Why do we deny ourselves the same option? We should be able to end our lives in much the same manner.

Of course, I would like this option in the event of a painful terminal illness. This is probably the least controversial scenario for it, but I'm not content to leave it there. I'd like the option even outside of a terminal condition. I'd like it in the event that I simply decide I'm ready to die. Maybe I reach the point where life is no longer enjoyable. Maybe I decide that I'm not willing to enter an assisted living facility or endure all the awful things about the aging process we rarely speak about. There are plenty of good reasons someone might choose to die.

I'd like to have the option available to me for a quick and relatively painless death without having to worry about botching a suicide attempt and ending up being kept alive on machines against my will. And even if you are confident you would never exercise such an option, I'd like you to have it as well.

So why do we not all have this option available to us? To some degree, we can blame religion. In the United States, Christians have meddled in our supposedly secular government to the point that many of us do not have this right. But I don't think this is the whole story. Our culture's refusal to accept the realities of death, to talk openly about these realities, and shield ourselves from the awareness of our own mortality are important here too. If more people knew what awaited them in nursing homes, they might have different views about the importance of having the right to die. So while I do place a good deal of the blame on religion, I don't think we can blame all of it on religion.

To some extent, the controversy over abortion boils down to whether we want women to have the right to make important decisions about what is happening in their own bodies. Many of us say that abortion must remain legal, in part because we recognize the significance of this choice and we want women to have the option even if an individual woman can always opt not to exercise it. Others are willing to deny women this right because they think they are protecting a potential person. The debate rages on.

And now we have an even more bizarre debate taking place about whether governments can enforce public health regulations intended to slow the spread of a serious illness. Can some people be inconvenienced to save others' lives? Apparently, we have decided that they can unless churches are the ones being inconvenienced. In those cases, the right to cram into a church to worship fictional gods outweighs the right to life the rest of us thought we had. This debate is also far from over.

What I am asking for here is barely even debated. Physician-assisted suicide remains illegal in most states, and there is little talk of changing that. Where it is legal, it is severely limited and quite different from the broader right I am advocating for here. What I am proposing does not involve any other persons, actual or potential. This should make it far less controversial than abortion, but this does not seem to be the case. And what I am asking for here doesn't inconvenience others by (gasp) suggesting that they wear masks to protect others. This should make it far less controversial than the enforcement of public health measures.

We in the United States are fond of talking about our freedom. After listening to us pound our chests and yell about "muh freedums," someone unfamiliar with our country might be forgiven for concluding that we really do care deeply about it. But what could possibly be a more important freedom than the freedom to die on one's own terms? This is a freedom we should have.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2014. It was revised and expanded in 2020.