Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide

By Levatter, Ross | Ideas on Liberty, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide


Levatter, Ross, Ideas on Liberty


Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politic of Suicide

by Thomas Szasz

Praeger * 1999 * 177 pages * $25.95

Thomas Szasz and his work need no introduction to a libertarian audience. A physician and psychiatrist, his love of liberty has always outweighed his love of medicine, and he has become one of the great opponents of the medicalized loss of liberty known as the Therapeutic State.

Szasz's 24th book attacks yet another sacred cow of the modern worldview that crushes personal autonomy under the guise of expert therapeutic intervention and mandated "helpfulness."

Some background: Szasz takes liberty, responsibility, and autonomy seriously. If mental illness is, as other psychiatrists tell us, "a disease like any other," Szasz asks why imprison schizophrenics against their will when we don't imprison diabetics against their will? Szasz argues vociferously for the liberty of those labeled mentally ill. If, as Thomas Jefferson argued, men have as much right to ingest what they wish as they have to think and believe what they wish, why, asks Szasz, do we fight an unwinnable war against drugs? He has long been an advocate of the right to ingest or inject whatever one chooses (insisting also that those who do so take the responsibility of any consequences that follow). He has, however, not been an advocate of medicalizing the war on drugs, seeing this as just another effort to aggrandize physicians while infantilizing the masses.

In his latest book, Szasz advances his defense of autonomy and liberty by speaking out for the right to suicide.

Our final freedom is the fatal freedom, the ability to control our deaths, just as we attempt to control (and are typically granted the right to control) our lives. Szasz explores the history of suicide, from a sinful act to a symptom of mental illness to an alleged "right" under the control and auspices of medical experts.

In past centuries, the successful act of suicide allowed religious authorities to prohibit religious burial and political authorities to confiscate the suicide's property. More recently, failed suicide justified involuntary confinement in a mental hospital. Now the desire for suicide is alternatively seen as evidence of disease if acted on by an individual but as a sacred right if handled through the intermediary of a physician.

Szasz will have none of this.

Death control, like birth control, requires medical knowledge but is not a medical matter. It is a moral matter, and should in a secular society be under the control of the individual. In the twentieth century, birth control was initially illegal, then for a time available only by physician prescription. Now it is seen as a right, to be handled autonomously, not via physician-assisted birth control. Analogously (and for those who have not yet had the pleasure, be aware that Szasz is the master of analogy), if adults are to be free and autonomous, they need to obtain control of their deaths, not be placed in the position of medical mendicants, trying to please the authorities with the right combination of signs and symptoms, complaints and conditions that "justify" physician assistance in ending their lives. …

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