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Lessons on Dying from September 11

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Lessons on Dying from September 11

As we approach the anniversary of the events of last September 11, we seek to draw some meaning from that pervasive tragedy. We are reminded of what is truly important in life: family, love, duty, how to die.

Do you remember that horrific photograph of a man plunging headfirst toward the pavement from a World Trade Center tower? It is reasonable to conclude that he chose to jump, thereby slightly hastening his dying, rather than stay in his office and be slowly burnt alive. Who among us would not have made a similar choice?

We now find that many people, perhaps 100 or more, similarly jumped, in a few cases holding hands with fellow workers. Just as did the 100 or more young women in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire of 1911.

We do not reproach those young women, we do not reproach those who jumped from the World Trade Center towers. We understand that faced with the horrifying prospect of being burnt alive they were excused in taking their own lives to avoid such suffering.

Just as was Saul, first King of Israel. We read (1 Samuel 31) that Saul and his small army was being overwhelmed by the Philistines. Mortally wounded and facing almost certain degradation if captured by the Philistines, Saul elected to take his own life in order to avoid such a fate. And the sages who wrote Genesis Rabbah—the great Judaic commentary on Genesis—state the general rule that suicide is a sin, “…except as with Saul.”

In sum, one faced with or undergoing intractable suffering is excused from the restraints of Genesis 9:5 (“I will require the life of man”). Again, at the practical level what service can a terminally ill or mortally wounded person further perform for God or man? May we not reasonably conclude that such a person is released from further service?

By a parity of reasoning, then, those who are terminally ill from any number of conditions, including cancer, ALS, and AIDS, and in intractable suffering are entitled somewhat to hasten their dying in order to cut short such suffering. This in a nutshell is the argument for decriminalization of physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill: where a physician writes a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs, as now allowed in Oregon.

There is no sound reason for barring suicide (or a term many prefer, “self-deliverance”) for the adult, mentally competent and not treatably depressed terminally ill undergoing intractable suffering. And no good reason for barring a compassionate physician from responding to her patient’s prayers for a slightly hastened dying in order to cut short such suffering.

For those of a particular religious persuasion to use government to impose their religious position on other citizens not so believing is impermissible tyranny barred by the First Amendment.

Among many lessons, Sep. 11 reminds us that those dying in intractable suffering are entitled to freedom in cutting short such suffering.


This essay was written by Winthrop Thies, former President of The Hemlock Society of New Jersey (the predecessor organization to Compassion and Choices of New Jersey, Inc.).