America's Suicidal Quest for Autonomy

After weeks of deliberation, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law the "End of Life Option Act." He signed the bill after it became clear to him what he should do: "I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn't deny that right to others." Instead of relying on either moral duties or ethical principles of the good, Governor Brown appealed to the right to have options, to exercise autonomy.

Autonomous choice has become the major premise in most public ethical pronouncements. Last year, Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill 29-year-old Californian, relied on autonomy to make her nationwide case for physician-assisted dying. In 2004, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof justified the Oregon law by saying autonomy is what makes human life special and determines human dignity. And in 1992, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy based his legal argument for abortion on the same appeal: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

According to the Gallup Values and Beliefs Survey released this past May, 68 percent of Americans support physician-assisted suicide, up 10 percentage points from 2014. Among 18- to 34-year-olds it was even higher (81 percent). According to Medscape, 54 percent of American doctors also support physician-assisted suicide, an increase of 8 percent since 2011.

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