Suicide is the act of intentionally taking one's own life. In most states suicide is not illegal; however, in a few states attempted suicide is illegal.
Throughout history, suicide has been both condemned and condoned by various societies. In ancient Greece suicide was generally regarded as not wrong in itself, but there had to be a justification for it and it had to be approved by a council. Most Greek philosophers were against suicide for one reason or another. Plato was considered to be opposed to suicide, although he made three important exceptions: when legally ordered by the state; for painful and incurable illness; and when one is compelled to it by the occurrence of some intolerable misfortune. The Stoics and followers of the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, generally felt that when life became unbearable suicide was justified, especially if one had an incurable illness. Two Greek philosophers, Democritus and Speusippus, both committed suicide because of health problems.
Suicide is generally condemned by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Many if not most Catholics still believe suicide to be a major sin; however, the Catholic Church has shifted its stance over time to being less condemning of members who have committed suicide and even allowing these individuals to have full funeral and burial rights within the Church. This change in the Catholic Church occurred as a result of increased recognition of the link between mental disorders and suicide as noted in Catechisms 2282 and 2283: “… Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardships, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance…”
The Old Testament book of Exodus records that God gave a tablet to Moses with Ten Commandments for the Hebrew people. The only commandment dealing with death was “You shall not murder.” The definition of murder is “taking someone else's life”, so one should never equate suicide with “self-murder.” The Old Testament includes stories of suicides but there are no such stories in the New Testament. There were eight suicides recorded in the Old Testament including Saul and his armorer, who fell on their swords to avoid being captured and tortured. Nowhere in either the Old or New Testament does it say suicide is a sin. In fact, Samuel said he would see Saul the next day in heaven.
So I guess you could call Saul’s suicide the first “honor suicide.” Honor suicide was generally accepted and encouraged by many cultures throughout history. Jews committed suicide rather than submit to ancient Roman conquerors or crusading Knights intending to convert them. The Japanese had the kamikaze and harakiri - both forms of honor suicides for country or self. Monks have been known to self-immolate or kill themselves as a sacrifice or as an act of protest. Today’s religious zealots and fanatics have become suicide bombers.
In the 1950s, when medical research discovered there were ways to keep people alive artificially, the U.S. suicide rate started to climb. Since 1999, there has been a 13% increase in the nation’s suicides with 47,000 people committing suicide in 2017. There is one suicide for every twenty-five (25) attempts with that figure being one in every four attempts for the elderly. The total costs associated with suicides and attempted suicides are about 69 billion dollars annually.
Americans have about a one in three chance of getting cancer in their lifetime. Cancer patients are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as the general public. Suicide among cancer patients is most common in the first three months after diagnosis. During this period a cancer patient’s risk of suicide increases by thirteen (13) times. In Oregon, 76.6% of patients applying for relief under the state’s Death with Dignity Law had cancer. It is likely that the rising suicide rates in the U.S. are due in part to the lack of compassionate laws for individuals diagnosed with terminal cancer (and any other of the myriad of degenerative and debilitating medical conditions afflicting our population).
Of course the major reason for suicide is depression – either clinical or situational. In situational depression, a number of factors may be involved, including a medical diagnosis that may result in pain, suffering, incapacity, or loss of dignity. Although depression can be treated with medication and therapy – those treatments do not erase or negate the associated pain and suffering associated with many degenerative disease processes. When an older person who has been suffering for years commits suicide, most people have a lot of sympathy and empathy because of the person's conditions. The suicide is often considered “understandable.” However, even young people can be burdened by unbearable physical or mental pain and suffering due to an unrelenting disease process. In spite of that, public opinion generally does not support a young person’s suicide.
In the past year, more and more professional associations and organizations are distinguishing between individuals requesting medical-aid-in-dying due to pain and suffering caused by medical conditions and suicide – including the American Academy of Neurology, American Academy of Family Physicians, the Family Physicians Association, the American Association of Suicideolgy, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee – just to name a few. It is time to make the Death with Dignity Law more compassionate and more inclusive of people who want to request medical-aid-in-dying in order to obtain relief from pain, suffering, debilitation and/or loss of quality of life and dignity caused by a medical condition. Every person should have the legal right to say, “I have suffered enough and am ready to end the suffering. I chose medical-aid-in-dying”.
2019 is the year to expand eligibility under the Death with Dignity law. February our legislators will be voting on bills to make Oregon more compassionate. Please let them know if you support this.