Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Questions of Life and Death

I know, great title, right? "Questions on Life and Death" happens to be the latter half of the title of a class that I am currently taking. I can't remember the first half. It is a very long course title. In Hebrew. So. You know.

As a peppy opening discussion for the first class, my professor handed out an article reprinted from haaretz which was about the following story:

A man and his wife, both around the age of 84, both survivors, had apparently made arrangements to commit suicide together. They thought the whole thing through very rationally, and left detailed instructions about how to arrange all of their affairs and what exactly needed to be done after they were gone, and took a bunch of pills. The wife died, but their son found the husband in time to call Madah and he was saved. The court then put him on trial bc they suspected him of murdering his wife.

We were told to break up in groups of three and discuss this. The two questions were: 1) Does man have the right to kill himself? 2) Does society have a right to stop him?

At first I didn't know how to react to the situation. I don't believe in suicide for multiple reasons, mostly bc of the after-effects on family and friends. Killing yourself isn't just making a life-decision for you, it's making a life decision for everyone you know and care about. That's the kind of responsibility that I don't want, personally. It's bound to hurt someone. Plus, I'm not into destruction. I'm into preservation. And if it is in any way possible to preserve something, especially something as huge as a life, I'm generally in favor.

But I realized that there were situations where it might seem rational to someone, where it might seem to be the best option, especially when alternative ones offer ridiculous amounts of pain and suffering. So, I couldn't really judge for the couple in question.I mean, it's not like I have the right to judge people for their decisions in general, but especially when they're in, or are facing, tremendous amounts of pain.

Of course the question involves basic questions of morality - like, is there such a thing and how would it apply here?But I didn't feel like getting involved in that end of it (it's another discussion from another class and I didn't have the energy to re-hash it) so I ignored it.

From the aspect of the law; it always seemed silly to me to make a law against suicide bc come on now. Some one considering suicide is clearly not worried about what the law is going to do to them for it. That's the last thing on their minds. Aside from the very obvious point of the fact that the government can't do anything about it.

From the perspective of the government however, I see why there needs to be that law. Firstly, it is the job of the government and the police force, and any other authoritative body of the law, to protect the people. This is an extension of that duty. Plus, if you don't, it just makes things messy. I mean, how would it look to be pro-suicide? you know, aside from the idea that murderers might use the excuse of "It was just assisted suicide man. I swear, he wanted me to kill him." Which would be difficult to disprove. But making suicide legal is messy in general.

This post was mostly written on a head cold so I'm sorry it isn't more polished and intelligent. But I wanted to know what the blogosphere thought. Anyone?

14 Comments:

Blogger Yoni said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Yoni said...

I wrote a post on this.

suicide

please don't yell at me or be angry at me.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Yoni said...

Some one considering suicide is clearly not worried about what the law is going to do to them for it. That's the last thing on their minds. Aside from the very obvious point of the fact that the government can't do anything about it.

This is not at all true, and is probably one of the reasons why halacha hits the suicide the only way they can, but forbiding proper burial and denying family the right to mourn.

A suicide will think twice about it when their family isn't even allowed to mourn his/her death.

Secondly many, many suicide attempts fail, and thats another reason why government's make laws against it. You can be criminaly charged for attempting suicide, and given the chances that it will fail, it simply becomes something that you had better be sure that you don't. (another reason is that most attempted suicides frequently screw a person up for life. Even a method as benign as sliting ones wrists can cause permant and irreversable damage to the body, and if you survive you may never, ever be able to use your hands properly again, or at least feel any pain in them, which severely limits what you can do with them without causing your self severe harm.

Your last objection also rings false. The government could always declare that all assisted suicides must be made on tape and the suicide himself must be the one to administer whatever leathal method, otherwise the participant is charged with murder. This would effectively limit assisted suicides to hospitals, or perhaps the police stations.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Although in the States, there are some jurisdictions where suicide is criminalized, generally, the law comes in in terms of

1. Whether someone has pushed an incapacitated person to suicide (i.e. encouraging a drunk to jump out of the window by joking that he's not brave enough to kill himself)

or
2. The role of doctors or other third parties in suicide/euthanasia.

The second issue is more complex. In Oregon, for instance, doctors can play a limited role in euthanasia. In all other states, euthanasia is banned. However, the family can make certain end-of-life decisions, provided that the person did not leave any specific instructions on whether he/she would like to be kept on machines or resuscitated in the events of emergency. As the Terry Schiavo case showed, which family members and when get to make those decisions can be a very complicated issues, but so far it is legal. Keeping someone on machines for years can be a major financial burden both on the family and on society if the family does not have the means to pay for it, or there is no one close enough to the person to make those decisions. One could also say that euthanasia or other affirmative acts are the only ones that could genuinely be considered suicide, and other end-of-life decisions belong to a different category.

As I understand, Judaism places the preservation of life above other issues, including quality-of-life and failing to preserve life if it is at all possible would probably be considered suicide, just as affirmative acts, but U.S. medical ethics typically take the patient's wishes into account.

I am personally very much against third parties' participation in suicide (am thinking of Holocaust/euthanasia, and it just gives me the creeps), and if someone is really insistent on killing him/herself they'll find the means to do that. However, I think that in the end it is an individual decision, and you can't charge someone for the psychological role in the death of a competent person who decided to kill herself (and did so successfully). (Unless he had any physical involvement in a jurisidiction where such physical involvement is prohibited and would constitute homicide).

3:47 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

I think it makes sense for the law to forbid suicide, even if it is unenforcable practically, for several reasons: 1) To get third parties of varying levels of culpability, 2)to have a legal reason to force help on attempted suicides and/or to prevent suicide, and 3) as a societal statement.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Yoni-
I was thinking of secular governments rather than halacha. A religous system can effectively ban pretty much anything by saying you'll go to hell for it. Once you claim you know something about the workings of the after life, rules surrounding death make a little more sense. Governments do not have that claim.

Many suicide attempts do fail but if you really want to avoid the law and succeed in the attempt, there are a couple of sure-fire ways to ensure that you don't fail. A gun to the head very rarely fails to kill someone. Generally, someone who really means to succeed can easily enough.

I'm not so sure that my last objection is as weak as it sounds, although I do see your point that in theory the government could make laws to prevent such situations without having suicide itself be illegal. But murder cases tend to get murky...

Irina-
I was mostly thinking of situations wherein the said individual was conscious and making the decision for himself (hence, suicide.) Once it's up to the family members are making the decisions it's already a different story. By the way, as far as halachik Judaism goes; you are required by Jewish law to provide a human being with nutrition and air such that they can remain alive. One isn't necessarily required to put them on life support beyond that. But if you do, that's when it becomes problematic; removing someone from life support after they've been put on it can be considered murder.

3:27 AM  
Blogger Yoni said...

miri, the surefire ways of suicide are not always readily available.

tall buildings may or may not be available (and do not always kill), and with guns the situation should be obvious. if a depressed person buys a gun, people are going to get rather worried. And if it is a father's gun (ok, mother's or older sisters if it makes you happy) then once a family member is depressed you can bet that they'll take extra broad precations to keep it out of their hands.

Other methods like stepping in front of a car are not necesserily lethal, and if not the consequences can be devistating to ones life.

Drugs are a long shot from being surefire, and likewise the consequences can mess you up for life.

Peoples bodies are both fragile and decidedly not fragile. it is very, very easy to hurt a person severely, it is exceptionaly hard to kill one. (hurting a person only minorly also is not easy, actualy its harder than killing a person, by alot.)

Other methods are quite grisily and exceedinly painful and terrifying, such as hanging (not to mention can go terribly wrong and end up even more painful).

killing yourself is not particularly easy.

3:50 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

In some situations you're right. But there are many scenarios in which access to a gun is not particularly difficult. If a gun belongs to a family member, it should be very little problem to obtain; but if not, there are other ways of obtaining weaponry (friends, relatives of friends, black markets that don't wait for a background check, etc.) I do see your point but I maintain that mine is valid if someone is determined enough.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Yoni said...

a gun belongs to a family member, it should be very little problem to obtain; but if not,

Miri, how would you react if your sibling came up to you out of the blue and asked for your gun?

not only that people are supposed to keep guns unloaded with trigger locks on them, either that or on their person. (can you tell I live in a city surrounded by rural hick provinces?) Ammunition is supposed to be stored completely seperately, and also under lock an key.

And again, if a family member or friend asked you for your gun, how would you respond?

and even if you were normal irresponsible with it, and kept it loaded and unlocked beside its own ammunition because you lived in the boon docks and the only thing you used your ww2 M1 rifle for was to shoot at cayotes and nasty oppossums that harrass and try to eat your cats, if you had a family member of relative who was getting very depressed, would you continue to be so irresponsible?

for percisely this reason many military personel carry their side arms with the chamber unloaded, ie no matter how many times you pull the trigger it will never, ever fire until you manualy load it (which doesn't take long but you need to know what you are doing.) I read a story once that included a scene based on this fact, involving a girl who stole an officer's side arm and tried to shoot herself only to find that the gun did not, in fact, fire only to have the gun grabbed and her almost backhanded away from it to keep her from fixing the situation either on purpose or on accident.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

Yoni-
1) How many people are stupid enough to ask for the gun? What makes you think they don't know all this information -ie where the gun is stored, where the ammunition is stored and how to use it? What makes you think that said relative might not have shared this information "in the event of an emergency" which is why they keep the gun around to begin with? If you're talking about responsible people.
But 2) what about the numerous irresponsible people who's children accidentally shoot themselves to death bc they know where Daddy keeps his gun, and nothing about how to use it? What percentage of gun owners do you want to say falls into the first category of "responsible users" - whose relatives may still have easy access- and how many into the second category of irresponsible users? And how many into the third category of "responsible users" who hide the gun and ammunition separately, keep the gun locked, etc, and who may be perfectly responsible with regards to their family finding the gun, but to whom that gun will never actually be useful in an emergency since it will take them too long to get the damn thing together?
And that's only from friends and family members. Let's not forget that in most areas it's easy enough to get a gun on the black market, if you really want it.
I've never run the numbers on this, but I feel reasonably safe in saying that anyone who really wants a gun can probably get it without too much trouble.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Yoni said...

tobie, in most places its still illegal to shoot someone even if you have a gun permit so it really doesn't matter if you have the gun or not. You're still not allowed to shoot the person.

5:39 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

From the perspective of the government however, I see why there needs to be that law. Firstly, it is the job of the government and the police force, and any other authoritative body of the law, to protect the people. This is an extension of that duty. Plus, if you don't, it just makes things messy. I mean, how would it look to be pro-suicide? you know, aside from the idea that murderers might use the excuse of "It was just assisted suicide man. I swear, he wanted me to kill him." Which would be difficult to disprove. But making suicide legal is messy in general.

Just as a side note, for hundreds, if not a thousand, years, suicide in Japan was considered a very honorable way to die. It was certainly encouraged by society in many circumstances, and failing to commit suicide under those circumstances was a terrible dishonor for both the person and their family for generations.

Until Japan adopted Western values, our ideas about it would have seemed bizarre to the Japanese.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

yes, the culture of the kamakazis...frankly that always kind of disturbed me about Japan. But then, I am a westerner....

10:21 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Kamikazi is just one aspect. I was really talking about the seppuku ritual.

12:05 PM  

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