The Case Against Assisted Suicide Reexamined

In Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved, Sethe, a runaway slave woman on the brink of capture, gruesomely murders one of her infant children and is halted seconds before killing the second. Cognizant of the approaching men, Sethe’s actions are deliberate, swift, confident, and unflinching. Afterwards, she sits erect in the Sheriff’s wagon. The reader is left to struggle, situating the horror of the event within the context of the reality of slavery. Was this an act of mercy tQ prevent the suffering Sethe’s child would know as a slave? Is loss of autonomy, even rising to the condition of slavery, sufficient justification for ending a life? Was this a desperate attempt to control an unjust situation? These questions of suffering, self-determination, and control are similar to the ones raised within the context of the euthanasia debate today. The two primary justifications for euthanasia are often identified as the prevention of suffering and respect for autonomous choice to end one’s life (or, for the incompetent person, respect for the guardian’s autonomous choice, presumably supporting the interests of the incompetent individual). Certainly slavery is the extreme example of diminished autonomy, and arguably of suffering. Nevertheless, an intuitive response that Sethe’s actions are morally wrong, or an emotive reaction of shock, is understandable.