A growing number of us feel that death, when the time is right for us, should be comfortably in our own hands, not in the hands of doctors or lawyers, priests or politicians. We want to be able to end our own lives, in our homes, at a time of our choosing, without society getting its collective knickers in a twist that our considered, personal choice is somehow an affront to—and I stumble here—an affront to what? To how things are supposed to be? If we are supposed to be anything, we are supposed to be living in small bands hunting and gathering and dying long before the age of 30. Let us dispense with fanciful imaginings of what is supposed to be and instead consider what makes sense.
Let us also dispense with any romantic notion of a natural death. We have always done everything in our power to wrestle death from the hands of nature. I had severe pneumonia as a newborn and was in an oxygen tent for days. That would have been my natural death. I took another stab at it in my twenties with a climbing accident that, without medical intervention, would have finished me. Whatever road to death I take, it is way too late for it to be natural. At a less philosophical level, is either life or death natural if you have medications supporting your circulation? Or oxygen supplementing your breathing? A pacemaker guiding your heart? A caregiver spooning applesauce into your mouth because you no longer know how to feed yourself?
The vast majority of us come to a point of physical or mental debilitation that we never would have reached had we lived and died naturally. The additional time to live is a wonderful gift of modern medicine, but does it oblige us to suffer past the point of blessing, in indentured servitude to the medical establishment, to pay for that borrowed time? Must we then be cursed to endure exhausted, painful bodies or demented minds as some kind of penance?
Our lives are complex sagas with many a plot twist, but they all must end. As anyone who has turned the final page of an engaging novel knows, the end matters. It matters deeply. No wonder, then, that so many of us want to be able to comfortably and safely end our own lives, on our own terms, without having to turn to professionals of one sort or another who determine if our personal values are worthy by their standards, or if our assessment of our life’s remaining quality can be measured by their yardstick, or if our reasoning makes sense to them.
It is an unnecessary tragedy that those who want the option to end their lives must plan in secret, researching furtively behind closed doors, whispering goodbye only to their most trusted loved ones (if to anyone) for fear that their careful consideration of a reasoned, self-honoring choice might result in armed police arriving on their doorstep to haul them off to psychiatric incarceration … followed by the very future they wanted so desperately to avoid.
It is time for society to provide the tools and the legal protections to support those who want to be able to choose when and how their lives end. It is time for society to create new rituals and new traditions. We need new understandings and a supportive social framework, not only for those who wish to consciously conclude their own lives, but also for those who love them. It is time for proudly and openly planned self-deliverance. Let us make the preparation for life’s end a time of coming together. A chosen death is an intimate opportunity to share and celebrate life’s final chapter.