The right to die is again in the news. This coming Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court will consider the case of Robert Baxter, who, afflicted with incurable lymphocytic leukemia, claimed that a doctor’s refusal to help him die abrogated his rights under the state’s constitution.
But what about the federal constitution, or the Declaration of Independence? Do rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” imply an individual’s power to exit life on his own terms, and in her own time? What did the Founders think about assisted suicide, or ending one’s own life in the face of incurable illness?
Our nation’s founding generation often drew their ethics from classical rather than Christian sources. Many especially admired the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca. So John Adams admonished himself in his diary to “Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral Writers.” A listing of Washington’s library from his Mount Vernon estate shows a copy of Seneca’s Morals, published in London in 1746, among the collection.
In those moral essays, Seneca advised that “mere living is not a good, but living well.” A wise man ought to be prepared to end his own existence whenever it grew unduly burdensome. “He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.”
Some goods were superior to survival, Seneca held, and some evils worse than death. He tells the story of a young Spartan taken into captivity. When ordered by his master to perform an undignified act—fetching a chamber pot—the boy cried “I will not be a slave!” and dashed his own brains against the wall. The illustration was likely to appeal to patriots ready to lay down lives on the altar of freedom. “Life, if courage to die is lacking, is slavery,” according to the Stoic teacher.
Clearly, though, bashing your own brains out was an unpleasant way to exit. Seneca preferred less painful means. He tells another story of a contemporary philosopher, Tullius Marcellinius who “fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.”. After distributing his meager belongings to his circle of friends, Marcellinius then stopped eating. “For three days he fasted and had a tent put up in his very bedroom. Then a tub was brought in; he lay in it for a long time, and, as the hot water was continually poured over him, he gradually passed away, not without a feeling of pleasure, as he himself remarked.”
That was the sort of gentle finale Thomas Jefferson probably had in mind when he wrote to Dr. Samuel Brown in 1813 about a lethal concoction of the herb Datura Stromonium, or jimson weed, which he praised as bringing on death “as quietly as sleep,” without the least distress. “It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks. I have never been able to learn what the preparation is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle. Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept secret. There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief, e.g., the inveterate cancer.”
Jefferson had already reached the Biblically allotted three-score and ten at that point. Strategies for the end game were beginning to occupy his thoughts. That same year, at the age of seventy-seven, John Adams wrote to the physician Benjamin Rush, in a letter penned under the persona of his horse “Hobby.” Wouldn’t it be a kindness to the old man to simply stumble one day, “Hobby” wondered, and end a tottering life like Adams’ quickly?
Nine years later, at an even more advanced age, Jefferson wrote to his friend in Braintree, “When all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athumy, debility and malaise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?
One suspects they both endorsed Seneca’s answer: “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as be can.”