Dying To Die

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From the Latin docere, meaning to guide or teach, we get the words docent, and doctor. A doctor, etymologically, is a teacher. That certainly describes Dr. Philip Nitschke, of Australia, who is head of an organization called Exit International.

It’s a small group, only about 3000 members. And a scant thirty of those are scheduled to meet with Dr. Nitschke at a secret location in the outback for a weekend of instruction. At the end of the session the pupils will have learned how to make a "death tablet," referred to locally, with appropriate jocularity, as a "peanut pill," referring to Australian slang for barbiturates.

Dr. Nitschke has some experience with lethal doses. He has previously devised a Peaceful Pill, made of nicotine and alcohol. Evidently it left something — death, presumably — to be desired. He is also the inventor of a "death machine," which uses common household components to deliver lethal doses of carbon monoxide. Perhaps his crowning achievement to date has been his "Exit Bag," which the patient places over his head. Elastic keeps the bag tight around the neck, preventing the entrance of undesirable oxygen, while the patient, quickly asleep from a large dose of barbiturates, suffocates. However, Dr. Nitschke found that "visually it was very disturbing." We can only hope that the Peanut Pill will provide aesthetically satisfactory self-murder.

Of course, Dr. Nitschke has his followers. Almost any idea, no matter how sinful or silly, will have its advocates, and probably the more preposterous the idea, the more vocal its adherents. In the case of Exit International, as in the cases of the other pro-suicide organizations around the globe, the mantra is "right to die." One of Dr. Nitschke’s followers, for example, is quoted as saying, "I should have the right to die when and how I want to." Similar sentiments are frequently heard, and are, remarkably, accepted. Think of the reaction, though, if the opposite thought were expressed: "I should have the right to live when and how I want to." A dangerous anti-social idea! Crackpot libertarianism! Some rights are "righter" than others, even if they aren’t rights at all.

A "right," according to the dictionary, is an "entitlement," or "that to which one has a just claim." Oft-cited examples are the right to life, and the right to property. Implicit in this definition is the idea that one can be deprived of his rights. Indeed, there would be no need to talk of rights, or of defending them with, let’s say, a Bill of Rights, if you could not be deprived of them. You do not, to give an extreme example, have a right to your eye color. Nobody can take that color away from you. So you have no right to your brown eyes, and it’s foolish to speak of one. You do, on the other hand, have a right to your eyeglasses or contacts, which someone could take from you. You do not have a right to your height; no one can make you shorter or taller.

Can someone deprive you of dying? And if he could, would he be harming you? When we are stripped of our rights, such as the right to property, or a good reputation, we are harmed. When deprived of our right to life, we are harmed mortally! But even God does not offer us physical immortality. What is more certain even than taxes, is death. We need have no fear that someone will rob us of it. We have, and need, no "right" to die.

Those who claim such a "right" are speaking of a time to die, not dying per se. Obviously, they are not complaining about the fact that they are not going to die. On the contrary, they realize that their death is inevitable; they simply want it at a time and place that’s convenient and comfortable. Their "right to die" is nonsense; what they really are claiming is the right to die NOW, or perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or whenever they choose, in a way they find to their liking. Man, in this view, is the measure of all things. Such hubris!

My complaint is not that people choose suicide, although I think that decision is wrong. Why can’t self-killers simply declare their intention of doing away with themselves, without invoking some non-existent "right?" We seem to be awash with euphemisms: abortion is simply exercising "choice" (as if those women who choose to bear their children do not choose!), fiat money is an "elastic currency," the killing of civilians in wartime is "collateral damage," our rulers are "public servants," religious displays are banned as "violating Church-State separation," taxes are called "contributions," and those who murder themselves are exercising some sort of "right!"

Wear rose-colored glasses if you will, but don’t deceive yourself into thinking that the cheerful pink vista before you is the way the world really is, or should be! Not everything that you want is a "right."

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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