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Why Does Suicide Have a Bad Reputation?

Whether and when we enter this world is decided not by, but for us. Nor is it up to us to decide when to leave it. Most of us would like to stay longer than we are allowed —but our lifespan is ordained by forces beyond our control. We are quite resigned to this; however, when we become greatly impaired and life no longer holds much promise, some of us think of shortening it and of asking others to help if necessary. Is that legitimate? Are there serious moral objections?

In the past, the usual lifespan was brief and illness often ended it abruptly. The old were honored largely because they were so few. We live longer now, and death is likely to approach gradually, depriving us of our abilities one by one, until we sink into incompetence and finally unconsciousness. This has made shortening life more tempting. Yet most people feel that they ought to be no more responsible for their death than they were for their birth. Religion and tradition also tell us that we ought to wait patiently for our end and always try to postpone, never to advance it. The medical profession sees this as its main task, and most non-physicians as well think it presumptuous to engineer death ourselves. It might be premature in any case: unforeseen good things may still be in store. No animal commits suicide, and our animal instincts oppose it. Thus we are resigned to a natural death, the date not chosen by us, or known in advance.

But instinct,...

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