Volume > Issue > Suicide: Human Right or Human Tragedy?

Suicide: Human Right or Human Tragedy?


By Joseph Illo | July-August 2019
Fr. Joseph Illo is Pastor of Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco.

Recently, I was bicycling across the Golden Gate Bridge with a friend. “They’ve begun building the suicide net,” I said, pointing over the side of the roadway. We stopped our bikes to have a look. An entire superstructure had been installed beneath the bridge, suspended 230 feet above the bay. After decades of debate, the City and County of San Francisco had finally decided to erect a steel-wire net under the bridge at a cost of $220 million. It is hoped that the net will save 40 lives a year, which is about how many unfortunate souls hurl themselves over the bridge’s four-foot railing annually. My parish boundaries include the southern half of the bridge, the San Francisco side, from which every ten days, on average, a person jumps to his death. Every First Friday we offer an afternoon Mass for their souls.

Many times I have stopped my bike on the bridge to peer down into the vast waters. The bridge affords an unimpeded view of sea lions cavorting far below, container ships passing swiftly through the Golden Gate, or small craft battling current and wind in their search for fish or a good view. To the west, an unlimited horizon of sea and sky meets my gaze, and I’ve often marveled at how the waters beckon a troubled heart. It’s not difficult to understand how someone filled with troubles could cast himself into that immense space to be swallowed up in the beauty of God’s sea and sky. The suicide net will extend about 25 feet out, blocking the view straight down. Maybe that will dissuade potential jumpers, but it will also eliminate the stunning view of the bay right below it.

How ironic it is that San Francisco decided to spend $220 million on suicide prevention at just about the same time the State of California decided to legalize assisted suicide. In June 2016 Jesuit-educated Gov. Jerry Brown made California the fifth state in the nation to do so. The result, so far, is that 191 Californians have been given lethal prescriptions by their doctors.

Most people who survive an attempt to kill themselves realize that suicide is irrational. A 1978 study found that of 515 people whose attempted suicides were prevented by Golden Gate Bridge personnel, 90 percent did not die from suicide later. Kevin Hines, one of the bridge jumpers who survived, was asked when he realized he had made a mistake. “The millisecond my hands left the rail and I was in freefall,” he replied. Hines is a strong advocate for the suicide net. And yet, when California lawmakers debated the assisted suicide bill in 2015, they enshrined a large photograph of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old cancer patient who moved to Oregon in 2014 to kill herself. Suicide advocates have made this unfortunate young lady a poster child, and really a kind of patron saint, of suicide.

Our leaders are confused, and we are confused. Is suicide to be celebrated, or is it to be prevented?

My friend and I got back on our bikes and headed toward the sunny hills of Marin County. Looking up, we could see the famous “rainbow tunnel” that bores through the steep slopes above Sausalito. Robin Williams, the gifted comedian and actor, drove through that tunnel hundreds of times on his way to the City from his home near Sausalito. In August 2014 he hanged himself in his splendid waterfront property. This shocking end to a brilliant life cast the entire country into mourning. As a tribute, the rainbow tunnel was named the “Robin Williams Tunnel.” I’ve often wondered, as I pass through it, what message the new name is meant to convey. Are we to mourn his death or honor it?

No society can sustain itself, let alone flourish, in such a schizophrenic state. One the one hand, we have declared suicide a human right. On the other hand, we set up hotlines, post billboards, and build nets to discourage and prevent people from exercising this supposed right. We seem to believe that suicide can be both good and bad, depending on a person’s subjective state. Yet, if the autonomous self reigns supreme, how can our society come to a consensus about the meaning of death or the value of life? The dictatorship of relativism has stripped people of their ability to “know” anything for certain, even ultimate matters.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with death. Much of our popular entertainment glamorizes death, especially violent death, and movies like Me Before You and Million Dollar Baby even celebrate death by one’s own hand. So why build suicide nets? If we are in love with death, as we seem to be, we will find other ways to kill ourselves. Spending $220 million to save 40 lives a year is not unreasonable. But it would be far better, and far less expensive, to spend our energy and resources building a culture that encourages life rather than death.

There is a better way. You don’t have to believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life to see that suicide is no solution to life’s problems. Just ask the jumpers who survived their own attempts at suicide. Maybe the suicide net will give some people a second chance. But it would be far better to help them before they reach that level of despair.


©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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