By Austin Block
“I have a terminal condition,” ethicist John West ’74 solemnly announced to Martha Wheelock’s seventh period ethics class on Dec. 6. “It’s called life.”
West, an ethicist and author of “The Last Goodnights,” a book detailing how he assisted the suicides of both of his terminally ill parents, spoke to students in Feldman Horn 201 about the ethics of euthanasia and his personal experience with assisted suicide.
Mixing humor with a sobering narration of two assisted suicides, he presented his view that assisted suicide is “the right thing to do” when a person who is dying and in pain does not want to live any longer.
“This is the ultimate personal issue because everybody […]is going to face the end,” he said.
Assisting suicide is a felony in the state of California, but it is legal, with restrictions, in Oregon, Washington and Montana. However, since there were no witnesses and no evidence to prove his guilt, West, a former lawyer, is outside the jurisdiction of the law. Though he openly admits his role in the suicide of both of his parents, he said that his admission of guilt is not, on its own, sufficient evidence to prove his guilt in court.
Although physician-assisted suicide is illegal in most places, West said that physicians have been assisting the suicides of their patients “forever” and often keep personal stashes of medicine for this purpose.
“They have been helping their patients,” he said.
Though he worried throughout the preparation process, which included researching proper medicine dosages and making sure their actions would go unseen, he said that once he assisted with the suicides of his parents, he never doubted the morality of his actions.
He described suicide as “the ultimate human right, because life is the primary human right […] and death is a part of life,” though he made sure to add that assisted suicide “can’t be done rashly.”
“I don’t ever want to have to do this again,” he said.
West’s thesis is that if physician assisted suicide is made legal and “good regulations” and “medical safeguards” are put in place, suicide can be a force for good that lets people die with dignity and avoid incredible pain.
He claimed that people have “an innate right to death,” and he said that slow painful deaths are “torture.”
“Who wants your mother to be required by law to be tortured to death?” he said.
After he finished speaking, he answered student questions. He requested that students discuss assisted suicide with their parents and grandparents over winter break and said he will return to Wheelock’s ethics class in January.