Religious people tend to view life as sacred, a God-given miracle that human beings are divinely prohibited from interfering with.
But absent a verifiable divinity, life, however wonderful it may be for some, can be a lightless dungeon of inescapable misery for others.
What is the rationality of not allowing the relief of anyone’s unending suffering via suicide in fealty to the imaginary idea that only an invisible superbeing is authorized to make such life-or-death decisions?
I was reminded of this contradiction while reading a story recently about Noa Pothoven, a 17-year-old Dutch girl from Arnhem who “deliberated for quite a while” before ending her life June 4 with the legally sanctioned assistance of a physician at an “end-of-life” clinic.
The Netherlands allows children as young as 12 to opt for physician-aided euthanasia after a licensed doctor “determines that the patient’s pain is unbearable” and parents’ input is taken into account, according to an online article in News.com.au.
Such assisted suicide is also legal in some U.S. entities (Washington, D.C., and the states of California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, New Jersey [starting Aug. 1], Hawaii, Washington, and Montana [under a court ruling]), as well as Canada and Belgium.
Noa was moved to this profound choice after being unable to find peace for years after two instances of sexual abuse when she was 11 and 12, and then her rape by two men when she was 14. In a media post the day before her suicide, she said the rape, in particular, was “insufferable” and that she “breathes but no longer lives.”
An autobiography of pain
Previously, Noa wrote an autobiography, “Winning or Learning,” (Winnen and Laren, in Dutch), in which she described how sexual assaults and rape as a small girl afflicted her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anorexia. Last year, she said, she was hospitalized when her worsening anorexia risked the failure of her major internal organs.
“Out of fear and shame, I relive the fear, that pain every day. Always scared, always on my guard. And to this day my body still feels dirty,” she said, choosing for years not to reveal the assaults to anyone.
Ultimately, she decided blessed relief was preferable to life.
“I will get straight to the point: within a maximum of 10 days I will die. After years of battling and fighting, I am drained. I have quit eating and drinking for a while now, and after many discussions and evaluations, it was decided to let me go because my suffering is unbearable.”
She stressed that her decision was not “impulsive,” that she thought about the pros and cons extensively.
Saying goodbye to loved ones
In her final hours, Noa said goodbye to her distraught friends and family members, including her her mother, Lisette, who she said had “always been there for me.” She asked everyone to not urge her to change her mind.
“This is my decision,” she said, “and it is final. … Love is letting go, in this case.”
A very sad, even tragic, end, no question. But accepting Noa’s contention that her suffering was “unbearable” also means accepting that it’s a good and rational act to honor her choice and relieve her misery if no compelling options presented.
After all, suicide is as human as religious faith, and often far more rational.
It’s cruel to indefinitely imprison people in their suffering due to private religious injunctions against suicide and making it legally difficult to execute a peaceful and dignified denouement, as it remains in most states.
The Netherlands passed its “Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act” in 2002. If the person requesting euthanasia meets a number of strict requirements, they can then request a physician’s aid to end their life.
This is how nontheistic decisions are made — focused on real lives in the real world of the here and now and not a fantasy realm beyond suffering and the cosmos. At the end of the News.com.au article, a suicide hotline and other help lines were listed for those suffering to reach out.
As Noa said, sometimes love means letting go and granting peace. Relieving immediate suffering should always be seen as a greater good than maintaining supposedly sacred ideals.