Suicide, Responsibility and the Sacredness of Life

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 107-109. Used by permission.


Complex moral decisions made with the counsel of family, friends and medical professionals are of quite a different order from the lonely judgment reached by someone for whom life is “no longer worth living.”

Derek Humphry’s Final Exit, a celebration of the right to die—and a guide to how to do it—set off a furious national debate among both secularists and religionists. My recent characterization of the book as irresponsible set off a storm of mail from Century readers, many of whom believed I had overlooked the agonizing decisions facing the terminally ill and their families.

In my effort to argue that suicide is an individual act of selfishness that negates one’s responsibility to the human community, I did slight the suffering of those in their final days or hours when death is imminent and pain is intolerable. Those who have witnessed family members in those final hours, and others who anticipate their own last moments, were understandably disturbed by what they perceived as my insensitivity to the terminally ill.

In discussing Final Exit I did suggest that while there is an obvious difference between "the elderly terminal patient in horrible pain who wants all pain to cease and the despondent teenager whose pain is one of low self-esteem," the difference is finally one of degree. It is on this "degree" that the debate should focus. And when the Hemlock Society produces a book that describes suicide methods in a favorable light, it becomes necessary to label suicide for what it is:

individual self-centeredness. Yes, there is a marked difference between the suicide of a depressed teenager and a family’s agreement that a terminally ill, elderly loved one is ready to exit life with everyone’s best interest at heart.

Complex moral decisions made with the counsel of family, friends and medical professionals are of quite a different order from the lonely judgment reached by someone for whom life is "no longer worth living." A desire to be pastorally responsible in assisting terminally ill individuals must not ignore the religious imperative that human life is the sacred responsibility of both individual and community.

Humphry recently clarified his own opposition to suicide when it is an escape from an unhappy life. He was moved to do so by the suicide of his former wife, a co-founder of the Hemlock Society, Ann Wickett Humphry. According to news reports from Bend, Oregon, Ann Wickett (her professional name) disappeared near Three Creeks Lake on the eastern border of the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. Police found her body several days later after an intensive search by hunters and other volunteers, according to Deschutes County Sheriff Darrell Davidson. (She did not die "in isolation." People looked for her; friends and family grieved over her loss; her horse was left to wander in the wilderness; and her death is now precipitating even further discussion of the cause she had long advocated.)

Humphry said police told him that Wickett had left a suicide note at her home. Humphry also said that while Wickett had had breast cancer, he thought the malignancy has been removed and he was not aware of any recurrence. Humphry and Wickett had collaborated on Jean’s Way, an account of the assisted suicide of Humphry’s first wife, and on a second book, The Right to Die: Understanding Euthanasia. Earlier Wickett had written Double Exit, a description of the double suicide of her aged parents.

According to an Associated Press report, Humphry and Wickctt divorced in 1990 "after a highly publicized bitter separation in which Ann Humphry contended that her husband abandoned her after learning that she had potentially life-threatening breast cancer." At the time of her death she was suing her former husband, "charging libel and slander for comments he made about her mental state."

In a paid advertisement in the New York Times, Humphry described his wife as a woman "of Nordic beauty, enormous talent -- a gourmet cook and often wonderful company, [but] at other times her depressions were so serious that she had to be hospitalized." He added that "suicide for depression has never been part of the credo of the Hemlock Society" and that the society supports "suicide prevention in appropriate cases."

Readers who responded to my initial editorial on Final Exit understandably focused on the pastoral concerns involved with intense physical suffering from a terminal illness. And this is an important consideration in any discussion of how we confront dying. But this pastoral focus must not allow us to overlook the point that, as one respondent wrote me, "conscious decisions to commit suicide are likely to increase as a result of a sort of implicit permission that the very publication of Humphry’s book has given, despite his ‘caveats and warnings."

We will never know how Ann Wickett reached her decision to go into the wilderness of Oregon to take her own life. But we do know that she believed in the principle that suicide is a solution to the pain of life. In her case (assuming she believed herself cancer-free) it was not a terminal physical illness that led to suicide, but an emotional pain that she must have believed she could no longer endure.

The Humphry-Wickett campaign in favor of suicide has opened an important debate. It is one in which the religious community must take the side of the absolute sacredness of life, with a commitment to the principle that the life we are privileged to live is given to us by God. To be responsible stewards of life is not just a suggestion but an obligation. Our eagerness to be sensitive to the special circumstances surrounding terminal illness does not relieve us of our responsibility to God and to the network of relationships we are privileged to share.