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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Is Assisted Suicide a Slippery Slope?
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All our reader stories and their broader debate over voluntary euthanasia are seen below. Email your own thoughts to hello@theatlantic.com.

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From a reader in Portland, Oregon:

Your reader says the situation in Belgium is “frightening.” I wonder, in what sense is it frightening? The only people who are dying there have chosen to die. Perhaps some of their cases don’t fit the reader’s criteria, but how is that his or her business? Either we own our lives or we don’t. If we do, then the choice of how and when to terminate that life is one of the most essential rights we have. Does the reader feel “frightened” by other choices adults make for themselves: to have or not have kids, to use various drugs, to jump from airplanes? If not, in what sense is a sovereign adult’s end-of-life decision “frightening?”

This reader, on the other hand, says “the idea of assisted suicide terrifies me”:

For most of her life, my grandmother struggled with chronic depression. It runs in my family, including myself, so I understood the struggle she went through, the dark hole that exists within, even though my depression has so far never run as deep.

Compelled by a video we posted of a woman struggling to end her suffering with assisted suicide, a reader shares his own story:

Like many Americans, I have conflicted feelings about state-assisted suicide. I am well aware of the nasty history of euthanasia in Germany, and I find disturbing the contemporary reports you noted on the approval of assisted suicide in Belgium for the mentally ill and minors.

Yet too often, it seems, the process of dying in America is bound up in a perverse Christian-inspired narrative that imbues extensive suffering with righteousness, purification, and courage. One does not simply die of cancer or genetic disease in the United States. Instead one “loses a long battle” or succumbs after “a brave struggle.” Even outside the context of sincere religious objection to assisted suicide, those who do not wish to spend their last days in agony or a shadow of their former selves are seen as somehow cowardly, weak, or disturbed.

End-of-life care in this country is rife with contradictions. For the terminally ill, suicide is frowned upon, and assisting them is illegal. It is perfectly acceptable, however, for the terminally ill to refuse or stop medical treatment, or to choose to enter hospice care and die at home. Instead of talking about the nasty business of dying slowly from a terminal illness, we talk about slippery slopes, hypothetical mad doctors pressuring their patients to save the state money by ending it all, or the sanctity of life, as if dying slowly of cancer was a blessing compared to these frightening alternatives.

When my grandfather was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in early 2009, he wanted to fight.

In an emotional video that Nadine selected this summer, a woman named Gina, who has an extreme genetic disorder that has deteriorated her muscles, makes a case for euthanasia to end her pain and suffering:

Many readers were struck by the video. Here’s one:

This is heartbreaking. She is fully conscious, but completely trapped and isolated. The only thing she has to look forward to is the end of her misery. Let her make her own decision.

An opposing view:

The state doesn’t prevent people from committing suicide. It prevents people from assisting others in committing suicide. For a picture of what a country looks like when it opens the door to assisted suicide, read about Belgium. It’s frightening.

The New Yorker in June published a “letter from Belgium” on that very subject. The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty was beside himself:

In Flanders, nearly 5 percent of all deaths are now suicides assisted by a physician. Read that sentence again. That means nearly one in 20 people are ending their lives purposely. That statistic indicates that the phenomenon goes far beyond those who are in physical agony or suffering extreme indignities of illness. In fact, it goes beyond those who are terminally ill:

Although most of the Belgian patients had cancer, people have also been euthanized because they had autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, partial paralysis, blindness coupled with deafness, and manic depression. In 2013, Wim Distelmans euthanized a 44-year-old transgender man, Nathan Verhelst, because Verhelst was devastated by the failure of his sex-change surgeries; he said that he felt like a monster when he looked in the mirror.

If you have any strong feelings on the subject, drop me an email.