Do We Need Laws Against Suicide?

A public campaign to legalize suicide, assisted suicide and mercy killing is gathering force. On the CMS program Face the Nation, Derek Humphry, the executive director of the Hemlock Society, announced that his organization is in­troducing legislation in Florida and California to repeal suicide and assisted suicide laws and give legal permission to physi­cians to give lethal injections to terminally ill patients when they request them. Since that program, Betty Rollin, a former NBC news correspondent released her book Last Wish in which she describes how she helped her mother, who was suf­fering from cancer, kill herself. Both Humphry and Rollin have been touring the country and making numerous television appearances in an effort to overturn laws restricting suicide. They believe that suicide laws should not prohibit a terminally ill person from being helped to kill himself. They hold that the manner in which a person dies should be a matter of free choice protected by the constitutional right to privacy. On both counts, I believe, they are wrong.

First, suicide laws serve a very good purpose. Suicide is not criminally punishable now in our country because it is not clear there is any malice or intent on the part of the person who attempts it to violate the law. But suicide laws give law en­forcement agencies the legal power to intervene to prevent the suicide. The laws assume this power because contemporary psychology has demonstrated that more than ninety percent of those who attempt to kill themselves are either alcoholic, drug dependent or clinically depressed. If suicide laws were to be overturned, any attempted suicide that did not bring clear and direct harm to others would be protected by laws protecting privacy, and law enforcement agents could not intervene to prevent it.

Suicide laws also serve a further purpose. They are based on the conviction that persons who attempt to kill themselves are so distraught and out of control that society is authorized to intervene to help them cope with their tragic situations. Because of suicide laws, those who attempt to kill themselves can be provided with therapy and society can bring to bear all of its resources and authority to help them regain control of their lives. Overturning laws against suicide might very well deprive society of its legal power to help these people cope with their tragedies.

There is nothing in the principle that the terminally ill person should have the right to destroy his life that would prohibit others from doing likewise. Take, for instance, the case of a man who has neglected to maintain the brakes on his car and runs into another car, killing an entire family while also badly injuring himself and killing his own wife and children. Financially ruined, badly deformed and in despair because his negligence has killed his family, who is to say that his pain, suffering and despair would not be worse than that of a ter­minally ill person? If we adopt the principle that those who suffer greatly can end their lives, we must accept the likelihood that many more will wind up killing themselves than just those who are terminally ill. Loosening the law on suicide promises to create a whirlpool that will sweep many into the breach who do not want to live but are so distraught and out of control that they cannot go on. Moreover, relaxing suicide laws violates the canon that the law is to be biased in favor of the needy, weak and helpless, and would do nothing to aid us in our present struggle with teenage suicide. Quite the con­trary.

To those who would claim that the manner in which one ends life is a private decision and should be constitutionally protected by legal extension of the right to privacy, the follow­ing response is in order. In our culture, we have reached a con­sensus that some choices are not to be permitted because they are inevitably and necessarily discriminatory. We do not per­mit a “segregated but equal” educational system because we know that it discriminates against various minorities in prac­tice. The decision to kill oneself seems also to be inherently discriminatory against women. It is instructive to note that the vast majority of persons who have been candidates for suicide, assisted suicide or mercy killing have been women. Ida Rollin was killed by Betty Rollin and her husband. Jean Humphry was poisoned by Derek Humphry. Emily Gilbert was shot by her husband Roswell Gilbert. Mary Tukedy, an infirm and bedridden elderly woman in Toledo, was shot by her husband after she fell out of bed and called to him for help. Recently in Menlo Park, California, Harold Pritchard petitioned a court to remove the feeding tube from his 43 year-old wife, who was rendered comatose in a car accident, despite the fact that she is medically stable. In Texas, Vera Dixon was starved to death in her son’s home and he was set free because there was no law explicitly requiring a son to feed his mother. In Seattle, Washington, two elderly women were dehydrated to death at the Crista Nursing Home at their family’s request. In Min­neapolis, eighty-nine-year-old Ella Bathhurst fell down and broke her hip while living alone in her apartment. The fracture was repaired, but she was readmitted to Abbott-Northwestern Hospital because she was becoming dehydrated. At that point, her daughter intervened and ordered all treatment, including food and fluids removed; for six days Ella Bathhurst lay in the hospital futilely begging for water. In contrast to these cases, the only notable case of a woman bringing death to a man is that of Paul Brophy, whose wife petitioned a court to order his feeding tubes removed. Patsy Herbert consented to the removal of a feeding tube from her husband Clarence Herbert three years ago, but she only did so because she was misled in­to believing that he was already dead.

While the evidence is by no means conclusive, there are strong indications that the movement to breach suicide and assist suicide laws will result in greater bias against women. It is not necessary to go into all of the possible causes of this, but it would be wise at the very least to investigate any indications of bias or discrimination in the practice of mercy killing and assisted suicide.

Confidence that suicide laws will be retained is ill found­ed. It will be very difficult to persuade a man not to take a lethal injection after his physician has told him that he has throat cancer, and will probably live for only five more years. Typically, his first three years may be somewhat normal, but during the last two he will probably have to undergo a number of surgical procedures along with painful radiation and chemotherapy. By the end, he will have expended a great deal of money, suffered much pain and died in a very disfigured state. Could a person in such a state be reasonably expected to refuse a lethal injection before he or she reaches the final stages of life? We should also remember that insurers and health care providers stand to profit a great deal by legalized lethal injections for the terminally ill. Thus, prudence counsels that we must prepare for a long and difficult struggle to sustain the integrity of our laws protecting people from death at their own hands.


  • Robert Barry

    Robert L. Barry, O.P. was at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

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