Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Does Old Age Make Suicide Ethical?

By Rob Elder

March, 2002

Chester and Joan got old, he 86, she 89. They got sick. They felt that age and illness had stolen the quality of their lives. Early this year, after much discussion, they joined in a double suicide.

Because Chester Nimitz Jr. was the son of the most famous U.S. admiral of our time, and was a Navy Admiral himself, this was news. But was it ethical?

Absolutely, said several letters to the New York Times, published last week. Absolutely not, insisted another letter writer, the child of an elderly couple who had done the same thing. "Suicide", she insisted, "is the ultimate selfish act, no matter whether the person who chooses to die in this way is 18 or 80." Her parents had made their intentions clear, she said, but even so, she and other immediate family were "horrified and deeply wounded by their suicides."

At the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, my colleagues and I saw the Nimitz suicides as a fascinating case study. Whether elderly people have the right to choose when and how they end their lives is an emerging ethical issue that will become more recognized as the baby boom generation grows old. As medical advances keep us alive longer and longer, more and more of us will face the question of whether we want to outlive the factors that compose the quality of our lives - good health, friends, memory capacity, whatever.

Unlike the woman who argued that suicide is selfish whether a person be 18 or 80, I believe age makes a big difference. So does Mike Meyer, chair of Santa Clara University's Philosophy Department and one of the faculty members associated with the Ethics Center.

"Suicide at the end of life is so much more likely to be a reasonable choice for an individual than suicide at any other point in life," he says, "that we ought to think of it as voluntary euthanasia so that the fair-minded social stigma at other times of life might be diminished or in the best cases simply eliminated.

"Suicide at the end of life might well be connected to a person's sense of her dignity, while suicide at other times is altogether less likely to be a genuine issue of dignity."

Still, Meyer adds a cautionary note: "Legalizing assisted suicide carries grave risks for a society, like ours, that is plagued by inequality, not the least of which involves availability of high-quality health care."

United States law distinguishes between the active and passive ending of one's life. The law frowns on my taking my own life, and forbids me to help you end yours. Yet we both have the right to sign legal instruments directing that we not be kept on life support systems.

As retirees make up an increasing share of our population, we'll also face emerging ethical questions about the economics of aging. At age 63, I am inundated with warnings from financial planners to ration my spending so that I do not run out of money for at least another 20 years. But what if I prefer to splurge for 10 years, and at that point end my life, rather than scrimp along for the next two or three decades? Is one choice more ethical than the other? Do I owe my family to stay alive as long as possible?

It's a slippery slope. My children and grandchildren will be sad when I die. Does that make it unethical for me to spend all my savings having good times with them while I am still reasonably hearty, and then depart in dignity? I don't think so.

But here's the catch: Let's say that at age 73, having exhausted my savings but not my energy, I decide I don't want to end my life after all, and become a financial burden to my kids for the next 20 years. Is that ethical?

I certainly don't have definitive answers. But these are questions my generation is wrestling with, and our advisers—financial, legal and spiritual—must prepare to help us resolve them.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Sunday January 20, 2002.

Rob Elder is Retired editor at San Jose Mercury News and Member of the Advisory Board at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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