One night recently, during a dinner table conversation, an attractive, cultured, well-educated friend in her late sixties declared with surprising finality, “If I had stage-four pancreatic cancer, I’d put a revolver in my mouth and go night-night.” She was reacting to a newspaper article we had all read about a 66-year-old woman in Sequim, Washington, who, in the final stages of a terminal illness, chose to die by way of doctor-assisted suicide, now legal thanks to the passage of a new state law. We all agreed that the Death With Dignity Act sounded better than a revolver in the mouth. The law passed last November with 58 percent of the vote, making Washington the second state, after Oregon, to legalize assisted suicide, which is a crime elsewhere in the United States and many parts of the world. (What’s the punishment for assisting a suicide? Hanging?)
Death has become a curiously popular topic with many of my old friends, emphasis on “old.” Aging has a way of redefining inevitability—of throwing into stark relief our right to die, something we had always taken for granted. If we believe in the right to life, shouldn’t we likewise accept that people have a right to dispose of that life, regardless of health considerations, whenever and however they want? Apparently not. The pro-life movement rejects freedom of choice in all its insidious forms. This being the case, it becomes a contest of wits to see how we can subvert law and custom.
For as long as we’ve had politicians who believe it’s their job to define and redefine what we can do with our own bodies, suicide, assisted suicide, attempted suicide, and euthanasia have been incredibly controversial acts responded to badly by the authorities. In ancient Athens, Plato believed that a person who committed “unacceptable” suicide without permission of the state—heaven forbid—should be buried without a headstone or marker on the outskirts of town. In France in 1670, a criminal ordinance fashioned by Louis XIV ordered that suicide victims be dragged facedown through the streets, after