This week, blogger Wesley J. Smith directed his readers' attention to an article on Salon.com written by Lillian B. Rubin. Eighty-eight years old and in failing health, Rubin speculates about our society's fear of death, the taboo surrounding elder suicide, and her own struggles with "ambivalence" about taking her own life. She challenges the notion that suicide is the coward's way out, insisting that – on the contrary – to accept the fact of one's "diminishing existence" and to take decisive action to end one's suffering is an act of immense courage.
It would be disingenuous to accuse Rubin of discussing this issue cavalierly. She recognizes the complexity of the issue, and acknowledges the difference between merely contemplating suicide and actually mustering the nerve to do it. Nonetheless, it is clear that her position derives from a worldview in which human life has no inherent value. It is quality that counts. Since this life is all we have, our mental, physical, and emotional capacity for enjoying existence is paramount. When the humiliating descent into senility and incontinence begins, life is no longer worth living.
Rubin's arguments may appear reasonable, and they certainly appeal to the American tradition of self-determination, but the embrace of such logic represents a grave danger to society nonetheless.
The Declaration of Independence is the document that establishes the principles of equality that inform American government and guide our culture. In it is the implicit recognition that human beings are special because we are created in God's image. This concept of the imago dei is what gives rise to the notion of human exceptionalism, and is what inspired America's founders to accord special protections and freedoms to individuals. We are not viewed as mere machines which can be discarded when our useful life is over. That was the attitude of Old World kings and aristocrats who thought nothing of the lives of those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The rather recent political concept of equal protection under the law is premised on the idea that we are creatures made in God's image and of infinite worth, value and dignity. Accordingly, suicide has traditionally been discouraged in public policy because it is a form of self murder. It defaces the divine image within each of us and degrades our species. It is an affront to humanity and an affront to God himself.
Embracing suicide for the elderly would represent a radical departure from our founding values and a tragic step backward in the political progress for which so many have sacrificed their lives. A cultural shift from a "sanctity of life" to a "quality of life" ethic would not only impact the elderly, it would establish a sliding scale of human worth and dignity that would impact the feeble, the handicapped, and anyone else whose "quality of life" is deemed sub-par and their societal utility compromised. Furthermore, it is inevitable that the embrace of self-directed suicide would naturally flow to an embrace of assisted suicide, and from there, murder under the guise of "palliative care." This is already happening in places like the United Kingdom, where the elderly as well as newborn babies deemed unworthy of hospital resources are being sentenced to death by dehydration.
To be sure, Ms. Rubin believes that she is advancing an argument for human dignity with her push for a cultural embrace of suicide. But the frustration and suffering that often comes at the end of life must be weighed against the implications of undercutting the principle of mankind's exceptional value in the eyes of God. For once we have shifted from a sanctity of life ethic to a utilitarian view, there's little to keep society from embracing the notion that the elderly and unwanted have a duty to die and get out of the way and pursuing public policies that will hasten their demise.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty. He is also chairman of the Center for a Just Society.
Publication date: January 2, 2013