There is a lot of dough flowing from Washington D.C., to State Legislatures, or in the form of grants, to non-profits, for suicide prevention lately. In their print and radio ad campaigns I have recently observed a number of organizations implore, “Suicide is preventable.” Not all suicides are preventable, or anyway they are certainly not preventable by persons other than the ones committing suicide. And I would hasten to add that in my opinion, not all suicides should be prevented.
Of course there are people who feel lost, hopeless, or even burdensome to their loved ones. Not every suicidal person really wants to die. Some people feel that taking their own life is the best thing for their loved ones. They may even be driven to this belief, not through an inability to see clearly, but by the cold reality of difficult circumstances, often economic.
It is tragic to see the promise and opportunities in someone that does not see it in themselves. For such a person to commit suicide over circumstances that seem to us as entirely forgivable, misguided, or even silly, breaks our heart. This is why messages such as, “Suicide is preventable” resonate with us. Of course we want to prevent the suicides of people that can be reached through love or connection. We want to allocate resources public or private, secular or spiritual, to allow us to help people who need it. It is a comfortable thought that the shadow a person finds themselves in might be cast by a sheltering hand. The thought of a troubled teenager, a suffering veteran, or an elderly widow, who only needs a touch or a kind word from a stranger to turn them around is magical. “Maybe I can be the one,” we think, “who by little effort on my part, can save the life of a valuable soul.”
But most suicides are not like that. It is true some people can be talked out of it. Some people want and need help and, if possible, we should extend the effort to help them. But some people have, what seems to them, perfectly good reasons to kill themselves. And while we may try our best to convince them otherwise, who are we to use the mechanism of the law to try and “prevent” it?
That is where the problem lies. When should we use the law to control other people’s behavior, even behavior that by all rights should be entirely within their purview or authority, about arguably the most important decision in their life? French philosopher Albert Camus once asserted that the meaning of life was whatever kept you from committing suicide.
With hearings for a a new Supreme Court nominee beginning this week, we are about to be bombarded with discussions about the sanctity of life and the fate of Roe v Wade versus a woman’s right to choose what happens with her body. As if those are the only two ways of seeing the issue. Whether you find it comforting or not, or whether you believe it or not, Roe v Wade, is not going anywhere. Even if it did, abortions aren’t going anywhere and neither are suicides. If abortion was outlawed, half the candidates and supporters of the G.O.P. would find themselves without purpose, politically speaking. As a consequence of that, a significant portion of political money and support flowing into the G.O.P. would dry up. When it comes to cold, hard political calculations the last thing the Republican Party wants is for abortion to be outlawed - though they will never admit it.
But we also need to think about abortion’s kid brothers, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The way I see it, if you favor the sanctity of life exclusively over the quality of life then, rationally, you must reject euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide or be revealed as a hypocrite of the first order. After all, if all life is sacred then a person’s liberty to end that life is not only irrelevant, it is wrong - plain and simple. That is easy to say in the abstract; but the view from a hospital room with a loved one in a persistent vegetative state or the view of yourself with an incurable disease which leaves you not only awake, but suffering looks quite different.
Maybe we should not be so quick to judge the value of someone else’s life when we aren’t living it, for better or worse. I am not saying that suicide, or abortion for that matter, is the best answer - very likely it is not. But it may be the only answer some people are willing to accept, and that is something we must accept.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Available 24 hours. 800-273-8255