Respecting the Right to Choose Death
I’ve heard it twice this week. In a boating magazine, a reader wrote to lament the passing of a noted sailboat designer while “respecting the decision he made to end his life”. And in a reasonably thoughtful essay in Time (as such things go), columnist Nancy Gibbs raised serious questions about the right to die while at the same time “respecting” the right of Sir Edward Downes, the former conductor of Britain’s Royal Opera, to fulfill a suicide pact with his wife, holding her hand as they drank poison together.
Gibbs, to her partial credit, responds to euthanasia activists’ emphasis on autonomy by wondering whether autonomy ought to be absolute. “This view,” she says, “rejects the idea that society might ever value my life more than I do or derive a larger benefit from treating every life as precious, to the point of protecting me from myself.” She is on the right track. She also cited a case worth thinking about, the case of a doctor in the Netherlands who, assuming that a nun in his care was prevented from requesting euthanasia because of her religion, decided to make the decision for her. But she still ends with the obligatory statement of respect for Sir Edward’s decision.
Now, me, I don’t feel obliged to offer statements of respect. I make no bones about the fact that I have no respect whatsoever for the “right” of people to end their own lives, any more than I respect the right of others to end their lives for them. I completely disrespect such decisions as being falsely justified by a totally non-existent right. And as Exhibit A in the defense of my position (not that any defense should be necessary), I offer Gandalf the Gray’s response in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo asserts vehemently that Gollum deserves death. I will quote the passage at length:
What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!
Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well-rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity….
…I cannot understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live after all those horrible deeds? …. He deserves death.
Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least.
This statement refers to killing someone who does not wish to die, but the logic of the argument applies equally well against claims of personal autonomy. Can I give life to myself? No? Then clearly I have not come by it autonomously. And if it is not autonomously my own, how can I claim autonomy in giving it up, in rejecting it?
There are higher and deeper authorities at work here than our own. A pox, then, on all who respect the right to die. This does not belong to us. To claim it is an unfathomable iniquity, a usurpation so great that it defies the imagination. To Him alone who has given life does the right to withdraw it belong. Every man, while he lives, is still “bound up with the fate of the Ring”, having “some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” The fate of the Ring stands for the outcome of the struggle between good and evil. None of us knows what role we might yet play in that struggle when the desire grows in our breast to give up our life, or in another’s to take our life away.
There are higher and deeper matters at stake. We need something outside ourselves to die. We need the will of Another. We need...permission.
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