Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Assisted Suicide: The Body as Internal Other

No. 62: Saturday, October 12, 1996

Since the Supreme Court currently has on its docket a case involving assisted suicide for the terminally ill, it seems like an appropriate time for some originary analysis of the ethical problems involved.

In discussing of the abortion controversy a few months ago, I noted the paradox that the ideal situation, where the woman freely chooses to have her child, occurs only if abortion is in fact possible. (I was interested to hear this position articulated, perhaps inadvertently, by Jack Kemp in the recent Vice-Presidential debate.) Abortion creates controversy because the relation of internal otherness that obtains between the woman and the fetus makes their status of full humanity mutually exclusive. In the case of suicide, our respect for the other's humanity makes us condemn his act as a crime (all states presumably have laws against suicide) while not punishing him from exercising his inherent human freedom to attempt it. The paradox is benign, because we may be "pro-life" about suicide without really infringing on anyone's choice to end his own life. Anyone actually able to, that is. The real controversy begins when out of physical incapacity, fear, ignorance, or lack of opportunity, the potential suicide requires the assistance of another.

Unlike attempted suicide, assisted suicide has been until now a different crime altogether: that of murder. Murder is the most unambiguous crime because it is the most flagrant violation of moral reciprocity. Respect for the victim's intent is at best an attenuating circumstance, not a defense; by respecting his free will at this moment I prevent its exercise henceforth. My existence as a free human being makes my "criminal" destruction of my own freedom impossible to prevent, but I must be punished for helping to destroy that of another.

Thus far this argument has not been publicly contested in the general case. The Supreme Court is being asked to rule concerning the terminally ill, those for whom medical opinion predicts at most a few more months of life. The next step, most think, will be to extend the right to die to those who suffer from painful or incapacitating chronic diseases that severely diminish their capacity to enjoy life. Not even the Hemlock Society has yet affirmed a right to assisted suicide for those leading "normal" lives.

The idea is clearly that terminal illness and, by possible future extension, chronic pain and/or disability so impinge upon life that the sufferer can no longer behave as a full-fledged human being. We thereby permit an essential separation between his will and his physical existence--his soul and his body. In giving credence to the former, we treat the latter as not a full participant in humanity and therefore not deserving of the full protection of the law. Once the soul has thus been separated from the body, we can allow this soul to transfer at least part of its power of action to another without penalty.

Perhaps the most striking revelation of these controversies is the difficulty of defending traditional "pro-life" positions without recourse to the transcendental guarantee of religion. In the abortion issue, the pro-life faction uses pictures of aborted fetuses the way Brigitte Bardot uses pictures of slaughtered baby seals. But the former pictures, unlike the latter, do not suffice to persuade us, because woman's right to participate in society as the equal of man depends on the total subordination of the internal otherness of the fetus to her capacity to maintain a reciprocal relation of external otherness with other members of society. Only a transcendental argument can deny the woman power over the contents of her body without denying the equality of her soul. In the case of assisted suicide, where there are no pictures to show, most non-believers find it absurd to deny a suffering invalid the right to shorten his life by a few painful months. Here the cumbersome internal other is one's own body, not another's; not a potential new life, but a radically diminished form of one's own.

For better or for worse, only religion affirms the full humanity of the individual human being while denying him or her full power over the body that makes possible the material reality of this participation. According to the originary hypothesis, the idea of God is understandable by analogy with the transcendent reality of the sign. The permanence of the sign-world that permits us to defer the rivalrous violence of the real world guarantees the "immortality" of the soul independently of the body, but always retaining the memory of its incarnation. Some months ago James Williams reminded me that, in Christian doctrine, belief in the immortality of the soul is accompanied by faith in the resurrection of the body. As I understand this, the soul does not participate in the realm of pure meaning independently of its inhabitation of a unique mortal body, which cannot, as transmigrationists believe, be replaced by another. In the Christian understanding, the body is the internal other of the soul. To legitimize suicide by assuring it the cooperation of the social order is to deny the sanctity of this otherness.

On the lower reaches of the slippery slope, we find the specter of euthanasia, where a third party is allowed to decide whether the body is still inhabited by a fully human soul, and if not, to put an end to it. If a soul can will the destruction of its own body, then another soul might conceivably be empowered to act in its place. If external otherness is considered the only truly human form of interaction, then failure of reciprocity as a result of age or illness becomes a prima facie reason for considering one as no longer fully human. The movement in industrialized countries toward legalizing assisted suicide thus takes a step beyond the broadly successful movement for abortion rights in desanctifying the relation of internal otherness.

These movements may be said to reflect the progress of secularization. But we can invert the direction of causality: the decline of the sacred reflects the loss of protection for internal otherness in a context where external otherness has become the unique model of human relations. This movement is understandable if the essential problem to which human language is the solution is the potential violence of external relations. (I will comment in a future column on some recent attempts to trace the origin of the human sign to the female promotion of child care by males, and thus to the priority of internal rather than external otherness to the preservation of the species.)

The permanence of the meaning of the sign after the destruction of its referent, which is our model for immortality, makes every user of the sign a participant in immortality. But the transcendental guarantee of this participation originates with the central victim that was the originary referent of the sign. It is Christianity that most unambiguously reveals the identity of the eternal meaning of the sign and its mortal referent. Jesus's mortal agony, by repeating the originary generation of immortal Being from mortal being, sacralizes the internal otherness of the body to the soul. Whence the Christian condemnation of the pagan practice of suicide.

By the same token, today's suspicion of internal otherness is at the same time suspicion of the transcendental model that sacralized it. But whereas in the abortion controversy, the desanctification of internal otherness could be couched as a claim of human equality, in the legalization of assisted suicide, this desanctification lifts our most fundamental taboo, the interdiction against killing an independently existing human being. It is therefore a far more radical development.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
Last updated 10/14/96