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Lethal Subjectivity: The Roots of Suicide as Autonomy

On September 11th, California lawmakers approved a measure, which if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, would make the Golden State the sixth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.


The “End of Life Option Act” was modeled after neighboring Oregon’s law. The California Act gained political momentum with the story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Californian who moved to Oregon to end her life after a terminal diagnosis.


While Maynard’s parents and husband played an important role in getting the bill passed, there’s more here than misguided “compassion.” Physician-assisted suicide, like other bad ideas making their way through our culture, has been a long time in the making.


The California bill passed despite the opposition of disability-rights activists and concerns voiced by ethicists who fear “that low-income and under-insured patients would inevitably feel pressure from family members to end their own lives in some cases, when the cost of continued treatment would be astronomical compared with the cost of a few lethal pills.”


It passed because, in the words of supporter Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco, “It allows for individual liberty and freedom, [and] freedom of choice.”


Sound familiar? As the New York Times pointed out, Leno “compared the issue to gay marriage.” Of course he did. Behind the high-sounding rhetoric of “compassion” and “dignity,” both same-sex marriage and physician-assisted suicide are ultimately about the pursuit of personal autonomy and self-expression.


Someone who understands this all too well is Rosaria Butterfield. Butterfield is probably best-known for her extraordinary testimony: she went from being a partner in a committed lesbian relationship to being a pastor’s wife and home-schooling mom. She was also an academic: a tenured professor of English at Syracuse University specializing in feminist and “queer” theory.


On a recent appearance with me on the Eric Metaxas Show, Butterfield told me that this quest for personal autonomy and self-expression long predated the Sixties, the Sexual Revolution or even Sigmund Freud. Its roots stretch back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the rise of Romanticism.


As Butterfield wrote in her new book, “Openness Unhindered,” Romanticism “claimed that you know truth through the lens of your personal experience, and that no overriding or objective opposition can challenge the primal wisdom of someone’s subjective frame of intelligibility.”


Unchallengeable subjective experience as the basis of truth is how men and women went from being “made in God’s image with souls that will last forever to people whose sexual drives and gender identifications define them and liberate them and set them apart.”


But Romanticism did more than provide the basis for the modern idea of “sexual orientation.” It also put self-expression on a pedestal. And that self-expression could include suicide.


As Butterfield reminded me, the first great Romantic novel, “Young Werther” by Goethe, was a story about a man who kills himself as the ultimate form of self-expression, living life on his terms. It inspired copycat suicides all across Europe over 200 years ago.


While the people championing same-sex marriage and physician-assisted suicide probably haven’t read the novel or even know much about Romanticism, they are living out its precepts. When Justice Kennedy wrote about defining for oneself the “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” it was straight out of the Romantic playbook.


So, how do we oppose this? That’s the subject of tomorrow’s BreakPoint. Please tune in because, as events in California demonstrate, our enshrinement of “personal experience” has turned lethal.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.


Publication date: September 23, 2015

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