Some right-wing and religious groups are up in arms over a recent Arizona Times article in which Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, purportedly comes out in favour of assisted suicide for the mentally ill. Here’s the well-reasoned passage that made them so “righteously” angry:
“From their point of view, the suffering is as great as a person dying of a physical illness,” he wrote in the announcement of his Tucson presentations. “And it probably is! They argue a terminal patient knows soon death will bring about the end of pain, whilst they are condemned to a lifetime of suffering. They report they have endured long hours of therapy and used mountains of prescribed medications. Still they would prefer death, they say.”
He is absolutely correct in his observation, and it is the reason I started this advocacy blog. Not surprisingly, anti-freedom activists once again entered conspiracy mode and accused Humphry, and all right to die groups by association, of having a sinister agenda to murder the “vulnerable” mentally ill with gleeful abandon. The problem is that no where in the article is Humphry quoted as saying he actually supports assisted suicide for the mentally ill. He is only relaying what people have been saying to him throughout the years, as he makes perfectly clear in a statement on the right-do-die list:
I have never pushed, or even suggested, for assisted suicide for mentally troubled people, as this headline and article imply. Terminal or hopeless illness is my field. It is sufferers and journalists who constantly put the ‘mental’ question to me.
There are suggestions he’s said otherwise elsewhere, but it’s difficult to put much trust in right-wing and religious web sites that are wont to lie or distort facts to promote their rigid fundamentalist beliefs. (Evolution isn’t a lie from the devil and gay people aren’t on a mission to turn your children gay.) It is sad that many of their readers isolate themselves in a right-wing news bubble for fear of exposing themselves to so-called evil worldly thinking.
The problem I have with all this brouhaha is why people are so afraid to touch the issue of the right to die for the mentally ill. Most right to die groups’ positions are fundamentally flawed because they discriminate by choosing which types of suffering are valid, even though suffering is a subjective experience. One of these groups, the fallaciously named Society for Old Age Rational Suicide, even believes that only elderly people should have the right to to choose because their pain is more deserving than younger peoples.
If suffering is by and large subjectively experienced, and we all have varied tolerances for pain and different beliefs about what constitutes quality of life, shouldn’t it be up to the individual if they choose to die? How is the pain of someone with a chronic physical illness who has little quality of life any different from someone with chronic and refractory mental illness with little quality of life? People must abandon out-dated models of thinking and realize that suffering is not limited to a select few who meet specific conditions. If, like Humphry, you acknowledge that mental pain is just as real, if not more so, than somatic pain, then what reason do you have to deny them support? Why do their human rights matter less? Tell me why their genuine expression for compassionate release after years of suffering should be denied.
It’s ironic that groups which claim to support liberal human rights and personal autonomy are practicing intolerance by rejecting the pleas of the mentally ill. The fear and stigma of the “other” that is rampant throughout society cowardly drives them away from discussing this important right to die issue. People fear what they do not understand, so it’s much easier to ignore that which is challenging and instead focus on the concrete and tangible like a physical illness which people can easily identify with and see on an X-ray. They are also afraid of being portrayed by their critics as heartless murderers of the weak and vulnerable. This is simply giving in to the lie that the mentally ill are feeble-minded and cannot make rational decisions about their lives.
The mentally ill don’t deserve to be treated as second class sufferers by a right to die movement that practices an illusory standard of what constitutes acceptable suffering for compassionate aid in dying. They deserve to be treated like anybody else who seeks mercy in death because they are tired of the struggle that is their particular condition.