Nov. 15, 1873:
Note: This article is not indicative of Victoria Woodhull’s views on euthanasia. Her columns were open to debate on many controversial issues. This is one of those controversial columns.
Among the many new problems that the mental activity of the age is forcing to the front for immediate solution, that of the right of voluntary retirement from life is the newest and most startling.
The question may be stated thus: Has man the right to terminate his existence when, from any cause, it becomes a burden; and may society exercise that right for causes other than the punishment of the crime?
The practice of suicide is as old as the race, and although seldom esteemed as a virtue, was never by the ancients regarded with that horror and disapprobation that has ever attended its practice among Christian nations.
The causes that have led to this abhorrence of what all Christians agree in calling a crime, and of the consequent resentment of society against its practice, as shown by the statutes existing against it in different countries, is the belief in the dogma of an overruling Providence which shapes our individual ends, and against which the suicidal act is deemed an act of treason; as if death by one’s own hand might not be as much an investigation of that overruling agency as if it had bee caused by the bite of a reptile or by the forces of Nature!
Nevertheless, as a seeming protest against the justness of the law, and as a rebuke to the public opinion on which it is founded, the crime (so-called) has never ceased from among men, and is today demanding to be recognized, not as a crime, but as a social necessity, and on the part of society as a humane and beneficent act.
Hitherto, all discussion of the subject has been estopped by a "thus saith the Lord"; but since the decadence of the theological idea of a personal God and of all the other anthropomorphic conceptions growing out of that old belief, the door is open for a discussion on the bases of reason and common sense.
If, as is now generally conceded, the universe is governed by law, and that the existence of human beings is not determined or foreordained by a will outside of and independent of the law of causation, does it not follow that the same law that determines the fitness of any other form of matter to exist, applies equally to man? And as man has the right and the power to make, or at least destroy, all forms of matter, why should he not exercise that right in the matter of the disposal of his own life?
No one doubts his right over the life of all animals lower in the scale than himself, subject, of course, to the laws of necessity and utility. Can any good reason be assigned why, subject to the same laws, he should not possess the same right over himself?
Again, human life is not so inviolable that it cannot be destroyed by agencies which are not subject to man’s control. The lightning blasts, the waters drown and the earthquakes engulf him; all the forces of nature have power to destroy him; the meanest reptile that crawls can terminate his existence. Should, then, a power be withheld from him which is not denied to the most insignificant insect in creation?
It does by no means follow, however, that the possession of the right and power to terminate one’s life imply their indiscriminate and unreasonable use.
Man has his morals as well as physical limitations. He cannot ignore his duties to his family, and he is under obligations to society which he is not a liberty to disregard without sufficient cause.
All that is claimed is, that he must be the sole judge between the duties he owes to society and the circumstances which impel him to lay down the burden of life; and the presumption always is, that the existence of that right to prima facie evidence that the circumstances warranted the act, because all our instincts are in favor of life and against its destruction. "We rather bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of."
The mere fact that an individual has overcome the natural and powerful instinct to live, implies either a degree of temporary insanity that renders him unaccountable for his act, or a degree of mental anguish, depression of spirits, or some secret physical suffering as would render him unfit to discharge his obligations to society.
It is easy to conceive of cases, were not history full of them, wherein the best and noblest thing a man could do was to die; cases wherein "It is more worthy to leap in ourselves than tarry till they push us"; as, for instance, in cases of incurable diseases which would inevitable result in insanity and endanger the lives or destroy the happiness of those we love; or in anticipation of an inevitable and more horrible death by torture; or under circumstances which impelled the noble Brutus to fall upon his sword after the Battle of Phillipi, and of the Egyptian Queen by the bite of an asp after the battle of Actium.
But it is argued that "man has no right to take that which he cannot give." This objection is based solely on the old theological conception which we have assumed is no longer tenable. Besides, it is not strictly true, and if true, it proves too much. We know that man, so far as his own species is concerned, is a direct and indispensable agent in the reproduction of his kind, and that without his agency, the race would speedily become extinct. But the objection has far greater force against man’s admitted right of dominion over the lives of the lower animals; for while he can procreate his own species, he has no power to reproduce any other the forms of inferior life which he daily destroys, either for the promotion of his own comfort or the gratification of his appetite.
It is thus apparent to all, that there exists in the public mind a great confusion of ideas in reference to the right of each person over his own life, as witness the diverse views and feelings of men in reference to the same act performed under different circumstances. The man who voluntarily sacrifices his life to save another is esteemed as a hero, and his right to do so is never questioned.
The soldier who rushes to certain death in the bloody arbitrament of battle, to uphold a political or religious opinion, no matter whether his cause bet that of the "blue or the gray," is honored for his courage and devotion to principle; but toward the man who, "rashly importunate," ends his existence, and who may have had motives that influenced his judgment just as strong as those that impelled the patriot into the "eminently deadly breach," no such lenient judgment or friendly approval is manifested, although the act is the same and the motives that impelled it may have been as irresistible and unblamable in the one case as in the other.
Now, as it regards the right or rather the duty of society to terminate life for causes other than the punishment of crime, there can be no question if its action toward man is governed by the same rules of utility, necessity and mercy that influence its practice in dealing with brute creation. If a dumb beast is injured past the hope of recovery, society in obedience to a humane instinct, causes it to be put speedily out of its misery; why should it not do as much for a man under similar circumstances? Where is the sense or utility of allowing a mortally wounded man, who, in his agony begs to be put out of existence, or a hospital, or other patient who is dying by inches with an incurable malady, whose every moment of life is worse than death; or the helpless and senseless paralytic, whose mental and physical condition is such as to render his life of no use to the world, and a burden to himself; or the criminal condemned to die by a barbarous and cruel method if we will never learn to put them to a better use)—I say, for what cause, and by what reason does society refrain from dealing with such as kindly and mercifully as it does to animals lower in the scale?
The attitude of society toward the dangerous and incurable lunatics and confirmed and confirmed idiots is also open for the same critics. Of what earthly use does the conservation of such a class of abnormal and diseased humanity serve? If there was a shadow of hoe that they might be cured and restored to society, there might be a valid excuse for the wealth, time and labor expended on their care; but in the absence of such a hope or expectation it is a needless cruety to prolong a useless and dangerous life, and a misapplication of effort to keep in existence abortive and diseased specimens of the race, which in all the lower forms of life nature, by a law of rigid economy, remorselessly destroys. The "survival of the fittest" is nature’s universal law. Why should a maudlin sentimental affectation of humanity reverse her decision and subert her order?
I know that it is the boast of Christianity that it first introduced into societ the sentiments of pity and kindly feeling toward its weak, suffering and helpless members—sentiments little known to the Roman and Grecian civilization, notwithstanding that in the sterner virtues of patriotism, courage and self-sacrifice they have never been excelled.
While it cannot be denied that the doctrine of human brotherhood inculcated by Christianity has in some measure softened the asperities of human nature, it is also true that the sentiment has been carried to such an extreme as in a measure to defeat its end. As the gospel inculcation of the duty of indiscriminate alms-giving will inevitable increase poverty and mendacity, so the unmethodical and blind sentiment of pity for the weak and suffering has rather increased the great army of weaklings and imbeciles by a misdirection of means and labor in spending effort on cases of individual cure which should have been applied to prevention.
Thus society, while expending millions in the care of incurables and imbeciles, takes little heed of or utterly ignores those laws by the study and obedience of which such human abortions might have been prevented from cumbering society with their useless and unwelcome presence. Grecian and Roman civilizations were, it is true, deficient in the gentler virtues, the excess of which in our day is hindering the progress of the race rather than helping or ennobling it. They, by crushing out the diseased and imperfect plants in the garden of humanity, attained to a vigor and physical development which has never been equated since. And in so doing they were entirely in accord with nature, whose mandate is inexorable, that the "fittest" only shall be permitted to live and propagate. She is a very prodigal in her waste of individual life, in order that the species be without sport or blemish.
Not so our modern civilization, which rather pets its abortions and weaklings, and complacently permits them to procreate another race of fools and pigmies as inane and useless as themselves. We seem utterly to ignore the law of causation in the matter of human procreation.
The beginning of life and its early surroundings, which we should know are the crucial period of life and the stage at which all reformatory effort should commence, are the very ones that are entirely overlooked and neglected. We act as if we thought that good fruit might be expected from an "evil tree," that moral, intellectual and physical perfection could spring from vicious parentage and low and squalid surroundings.
We permit the conditions of disease and imperfections to attain and when the harvest is ripe we straightway proceed to strangle some that might be reformed and made of use by society, while the incurables and the misbegotten are gathered into asylums, for whose cure millions are hopelessly expended, which it applied at the initial of life in establishing right conditions would have produced a nobler and healthier crop of human beings.
I know that these views will be deemed heartless and cruel, and will be denounced as the results of infidel or heathen philosophy. That they are not Christian views I admit; but since they have the endorsement of reason and the approval of nature, we can dispense with the sanction of the church. That they are heartless we deny, except as the surgeon’s knife is cruel, and their application is as necessary to the welfare of the great organism of humanity, of which man is but a minute cell, as is the operation of the surgeon to the health of the body.
It will be objected by some that these innovations of old-time custom and law are entirely inadmissible by reason of their great liability to be abused. That there are ever great temptations to violate the sanctity of human life we know; but no important reform has or ought to be denied because of its liability to abuse. That law, institution or custom does not exist, no matter how beneficent in its character, of which it can be said, it cannot be perverted. Of course it will be necessary to surround the taking of life by society with every safeguard that judicial wisdom can devise, in order that its beneficent intent shall not be perverted by cupidity and malice.
Signed: H. B. Brown, New York, 1873.
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