I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about suicide. (Not for personal reasons—even though by the time you read this I will have moved house with one husband, two teenagers, two dogs, one cat, one canary and three million books.) I have been trying to understand why it is that after centuries of looking at suicide as a shocking event to be discouraged if possible, people are becoming persuaded that it is now a right, and that if you’re physically incapable of killing yourself, someone should be allowed to help you.

Those who want to legalize assisted suicide argue that the prohibition against helping another kill himself is discriminatory because killing oneself is no longer a crime. This argument conveniently ignores the reasons why suicide was taken out of the Criminal Code. Obviously it is impossible to prosecute the successful suicide, and it is cruel to throw someone in jail after a failed attempt.

Although a myriad of reasons compel a person to seek suicide, clearly it is not a rational act. Most communities advertise distress center phone numbers where the suicidally inclined can receive help, 24 hours a day, to get them through a crisis. Hundreds of people volunteer to answer such calls. Why would such services exist—and fill a real need—if suicide were a socially approved “right”?

In an editorial last summer, in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, Dr. Brian Mishara pointed out that there is a growing tendency to view suicide as a rational choice for the chronically or terminally ill—the one exception, as it were, to the general belief that suicide is wrong. (It’s an eerie echo of the old abortion argument that abortion is basically a dreadful thing but should be available in cases of rape or incest.)

Dr. Mishara (a psychology professor, and president of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention) wrote about his training sessions for volunteers at suicide prevention centers. He gives a hypothetical situation where an elderly man with cancer calls in. In such circumstances, most volunteers believe that the cry for suicide is “justified” and they feel reluctant to intervene. Such judgments, he explains are emotional, not rational.

“It is curious that the presence of intractable pain and suffering is often a pre-requisite for justifying a suicide as ‘rational,’” says Dr. Mishara. “This justification persists despite the fact that intractable pain and suffering, as well as the grief and anguish of knowing that one is to die, are not conditions which facilitate the most rational human behaviour. It is under such conditions that we might need help to make the best decisions; the ability to reason might be affected by these intense emotions.

“People do not commit suicide because their situation is objectively hopeless, they consider suicide when they subjectively see no way of alleviating their pain and suffering, regardless of the objective reality,” he sums up.

For the most part, it will be those whom one palliative care expert terms “the worried well” who will decide whether or not we legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. “The worried well” project their own anxieties and emotions onto situations with which they have no direct experience. It is often hard for those who are relatively healthy and active to look at those less fortunate who seem to have such enormous obstacles to overcome. “I wouldn’t want to live like that,” is the attitude. But how does one know that for sure? We often find surprising strength when actually challenged.