Should the state have the power to compel us to live?

According to law enforcement reports, on June 1 a Fargo couple put their will on their kitchen table and then went into their garage to attempt suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide fumes.

That didn’t work for Louis and Ila Averson, both 85 and suffering from poor health, so Louis got his handgun and shot his wife in the chest, killing her. He then shot himself in the chest but survived.

He’s now hospitalized and charged with Class AA felony murder for “intentionally or knowingly causes the death of another human being,” per court records.

Even if the story as presented to us is true, that Louis Averson was helping his wife commit suicide, a person who “who intentionally or knowingly aids, abets, facilitates, solicits or incites another person to commit suicide” is guilty of a Class C felony according to the North Dakota Century Code.

The facts of that case will be adjudicated, and Mr. Averson is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in court. But for the rest of us, this situation perhaps demonstrates the need to answer an important question.

Should we citizens have the right to die? Or, put another way, should the state have the power to compel us to live?

Many states, including North Dakota, at one point had statutes on the books making attempted suicide a crime. If you tried to kill yourself and failed, you could have been punished.

While those sort of laws exist nowhere but the history books today, and were rarely enforced when they did exist, it remains illegal in most parts of our country for citizens struggling with terminal illness to seek help in choosing death.

Six states and the District of Columbia currently have statutes that allow for some form of assisted suicide for qualifying patients. Hawaii has a “death with dignity” law taking effect next year and in Montana the Supreme Court ruled that physician-assisted death is legal.

But even these laws are limited, and probably wouldn’t have applied to the situation with the Aversons. While reports have indicated they were in poor health, it’s not been reported that they were terminally ill, which is a prerequisite to being allowed to choose death in those jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal.

North Dakota should look to allow physician-assisted suicide, but I’m not so certain we shouldn’t go further.

If an individual wishes to choose death for themselves, why should they need to be terminally ill? Can’t the debilitating realities of old age be enough?

I don’t want people to choose suicide. Were we to begin a serious public policy debate about this matter, I’d want to ensure that any law allowing assisted suicide has a level of due process to it allowing those seeking death the opportunity to get help and choose life. On a personal level, I don’t think I could ever choose suicide for myself.

But then I am young and healthy and happy and loath to judge decisions made by those who are not.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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