Dying at the Right Time: Reflections on
Assisted and Unassisted Suicide
by John Hardwig
From: LaFollette, H., ed.
Ethics in Practice
(Blackwell, September 1996).
Let us begin with two observations about chronic illness and death:
1) Death does not always come at the right time. We are all aware of the tragedies involved
when death comes too soon We are afraid that it might come too soon for us. By contrast, we
may sometimes be tempted to deny that death can come too late -- wouldn't everyone want to
live longer? But in our more sober moments, most of us know perfectly well that death can come
2) Discussions of death and dying usually proceed as if death came only to hermits -- or others
who are all alone. But most of the time, death is a death in the family. We are connected to
family and loved ones. We are sustained by these connections. They are a major part of what
makes life worth living for most of us.
Because of these connections, when death comes too soon, the tragedy is often two-fold: a
tragedy both for the person who is now dead and for those of us to whom she was connected. We
grieve both for our loved one who is gone and for ourselves who have lost her. On one hand,
there is the unrealized good that life would have been for the dead person herself -- what she
could have become, what she could have experienced, what she wanted for herself. On the other,
there is the contribution she would have made to others and the ways
lives would have
been enriched by her.
We are less familiar with the idea that death can come too late. But here, too, the tragedy can be
two-fold. Death can come too late because of what living on means to the person herself. There
are times when someone does not (or would not) want to live like this, times when she believes
she would be better off dead. At times like these, suicide or assisted suicide becomes a perfectly
rational choice, perhaps even the best available option for her. We are then forced to ask, Does
someone have a right to die? Assisted suicide may then be an act of compassion, no more than
relieving her misery.
There are also, sadly, times when death comes too late because
-- family and loved ones
-- would be better off if someone were dead. (Better off overall, despite the loss of a loved one.)
Since lives are deeply intertwined, the lives of the rest of the family can be dragged down,
impoverished, compromised, perhaps even ruined because of what they must go through if she
lives on. When death comes too late because of the effect of someone's life on her loved ones, we
are, I think, forced to ask, Can someone have a duty to die? Suicide may then be an attempt to do
what is right; it may be the only loving thing to do. Assisted suicide would then be helping
someone do the right thing.
Most professional ethicists -- philosophers, theologians, and bioethicists -- react with horror at