Are Some People Just Not Worth It?

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Some people are worth saving, and some people aren’t.

That’s the message of a new line item in the Massachusetts state budget proposing to spend $400,000 on Samaritans, a suicide prevention organization that provides a hotline for people thinking about ending their lives.

The Massachusetts Senate added the line item this week. There was no roll call, but it’s clear that some of the same state senators who supported spending tax dollars on suicide prevention also support a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide.

One example is crystal clear:  state Senator Barbara L’Italien (D-Andover) spoke in favor of the budget line item for Samaritans but is also a sponsor of the physician-assisted suicide bill.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about how “foolish consistency” is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” In that spirit, we don’t condemn L’Italien and other senators for supporting Samaritans. It’s better to do one right thing and be inconsistent than two wrong things and be consistent.

But the strange alignment ought to make legislators think.

If respecting individual choices is the standard, it doesn’t work here. In both cases, a person with deep problems — be they physical or emotional or both — is leaning heavily toward making a decision that in theory affects directly only that person. (It doesn’t, as any relative or friend of a person who has committed suicide can attest; but even assuming it did, these legislators are apparently willing to try to sway at least some people from following through.)

A slight distinction can be made between the two situations:  The person who calls Samaritans is expressing second thoughts and asking for help, while the person seeking a doctor to kill him is moving in the opposite direction. But it’s a distinction without much of a difference. In both cases, outsiders are interfering with an autonomous person’s decision that doesn’t need outside help. (If someone wants to commit suicide, for instance, a doctor isn’t necessary.)

What justifies such interference?

Only if you accept that human life has intrinsic value can you make an argument that public money and public effort should be made to try to prevent an autonomous individual from killing himself. Once you’ve done that, it’s hard to argue that, say, an emotionally wrecked 20-year-old with a horrible heroin addiction should be prevented from killing himself while an emotionally wrecked 70-year-old with a horrible terminal illness should be allowed to have his doctor kill him with poison.

In both cases, a just society reacts with sympathy and love and reaches out to people in such situations as our brothers and sisters — valued just because they exist, welcome in our midst, and missed when they leave us.