Law Reform, or DIY Suicide
Free Inquiry, 25, no. 2 (Feb/Mar 2005), pp. 19-20

John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that the sole purpose for which the state can rightly exercise power over an individual is to prevent harm to others. "His own good, either physical or moral," Mill wrote, "is not a sufficient warrant." A century and a half later, although many people think a limited amount of state paternalism is reasonable-for example, to require people to wear seat belts when in a car and motorcycle helmets when riding a motorbike-we tend to agree that the state should not seek to impose its own conception of what is morally right on individuals who are not harming others. One of the implications of this principle is that the state should not prevent people who are terminally or incurably ill from ending their lives when they see fit, as long as they have reached a considered decision about this. Who else can make a better judgment about when life is worth living than the person whose life it is?

Voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are now legal in the Netherlands and Belgium, and physician-assisted suicide has long been permitted in Switzerland. But similar reforms have made little headway elsewhere. In the United States, despite the fact that opinion polls repeatedly show large majorities for allowing physician-assisted suicide, it is legal only in Oregon. The problem seems to be that our elected representatives are intimidated by a vocal minority, largely Roman Catholic or evangelical Christian, prepared to spend heavily to defeat lawmakers who seek change in this area.

Frustrated by these political obstacles, some right-to-die advocates are determined to make the law irrelevant. Instead of seeking law reform, they publicize painless methods of ending one's life that do not require the assistance of a physician. Derek Humphry's Final Exit was a trailblazer in this area, becoming a New York Times #1 bestseller soon after it was first published in 1991. It is now in its third edition, and still selling steadily on Amazon.com.

Humphry has not been prosecuted for telling people how they can end their lives, but some of those alleged to have been more directly involved with counseling people have been. Evelyn Martens, a seventy-four-year-old executive member of the Right to Die Society of Canada, was recently charged with two counts of assisting people to die. At her trial, the Supreme Court of British Columbia was told that Martens had in her possession helium tanks, sleep-inducing drugs, and plastic bags with hoses and collars attached. One of the methods described in Final Exit involves using a plastic bag fitted over the head, together with a supply of helium. The court was also told that the two women whom Martens was alleged to have assisted were both members of Right to Die Canada and were firm in their resolve to end their lives. Had she been convicted, Martens would have faced a possible sentence of fourteen years in jail for her victimless crime. Despite the strong circumstantial evidence against Martens, the jury acquitted her, prompting Canada's Justice Minister to say that Parliament should take another look at whether the law regarding assisting suicide should be changed.

In Australia, where opinion polls regularly show 75 to 80 percent support for voluntary euthanasia or physicianassisted suicide but legislative reform has been elusive, a medical practitioner, Dr. Philip Nitschke, has taken the lead in promoting do-it-yourself methods. Nitschke had actually carried out voluntary euthanasia legally during a brief period when Australia's Northern Territory enacted a law giving terminally ill patients the right to die. What Nitschke saw then convinced him that this was a right people ought to have. When Australia's federal parliament overruled the Northern Territory legislation, he sought other ways to bring help to people who wanted to die. In Killing Me Softly, soon to be published in Australia by Penguin, he describes how, rather than directly provide advice to individuals, he has organized workshops at which people exchange knowledge on such matters as how to build a machine that generates carbon monoxide or what combination of readily available drugs might prove fatal. (For further information on the workshops, see http://www.exitaustralia.net/.)

In Nitschke's view, there is safety in numbers. So far, at least, he has escaped prosecution, and so have others who have used his approach. Nancy Crick, for example, made no secret of her desire to die, which she saw as the only way to escape the pain, nausea, and vomiting that repeated surgery had been unable to relieve. On the day on which she died peacefully in her bed, twenty-one friends visited her home. The police interviewed all of them but finally decided that there was no evidence to support a conviction of any one of them for assisting Crick to end her life.

Those who support a right to die are generally agreed that legal voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, carried out by physicians, is preferable to promoting do-it-yourself (DIY) suicide. The DIY method lacks the safeguards that are built in to the legislation that exists in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Oregon and that did exist in Australia's Northern Territory. Sadly, some people are likely to use these methods to end their lives when they are merely temporarily depressed and likely to recover. But in the Internet age, information is impossible to suppress, and many people are determined to take control over the way in which they die and the timing of their death. In the absence of a change in the law, DIY suicide is going to spread.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Law Reform, or DIY Suicide'