Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s suicide last October was not a great surprise to her family and friends. After all, the 77-year-old former Columbia University literature professor and mystery author had written for years about her plans to kill herself, reports the Washington Post.
Heilbrun was suffering from none of the conditions commonly associated with suicide when she took an overdose of pills and put a plastic bag over her head. She was not terminally ill, in severe pain, or depressed. Instead, she committed what some have called “rational suicide” — ending one’s life out of a conviction that one has lived long enough, that the likely future holds more pain than joy.
Rational suicide, a coinage dating back nearly a century, has also been called balance-sheet suicide, suggesting that sane individuals can objectively weigh the pros and cons of continued life, and then decide in favor of death.
The concept raises a provocative question: Can it ever be rational — or defensible — for a sane and healthy person to kill himself or herself? Medical ethicists, clinicians and experts in suicide find themselves at odds on the matter.
Margaret P. Battin, professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, said rational suicide “represents one of the fullest forms of expression of one’s autonomy. It is the right of people to shape the ends of their lives.”
Daniel P. Sulmasy, philosopher and ethicist at New York Medical College and St. Vincent’s in New York, said, “Anyone who is not mentally ill and chooses the irrationality of committing suicide has done something morally wrong.”