In order to forestall a lot of hate mail, the following
blog is written in the tradition of eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan
Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal.” It is not meant to be taken seriously.
With that out of the way, I have a modest proposal to
save the good citizens of California over $200 million. That is the estimated cost of a
suicide-deterrent net project that is going to be installed on the Golden Gate
Bridge, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Examiner.
Opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is as iconic a
symbol of San Francisco as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. But shortly after it opened, its
builders found that they had constructed what lawyers call an attractive
hazard, like an unfenced swimming pool in a neighborhood full of small
children. The 240-foot plunge from
the sidewalk of the bridge to the deep waters below began to draw despondent
individuals of all kinds, who generally did not survive their high dives. According to the Examiner, 1,558 people have committed suicide by diving from the
bridge, an average of about one person every two or three weeks. And this is despite intensive efforts
of patrolmen specially trained to spot depressed-looking loners who evince an
unhealthy-looking interest in the view from the sidewalk.
and at least one squabble over who should have won the bid, engineers plan to
install a wire-rope mesh on the bridge, about 20 feet below the level of the
sidewalk and extending 20 feet out on both sides. The rendering posted online makes it look fairly
unobtrusive, but it will inevitably change the appearance of the bridge, sort
of like putting fishnet hose on the legs of a beautiful woman. (Sometimes it helps, but generally it
just looks tacky.) So if you’ve
never seen the bridge in its present netless state, you’d better go look fast,
because soon they will put up temporary fences along the sidewalks to keep people
from throwing things at the construction workers below. This last measure is a consequence of
sad experience—pedestrians evidently not only can’t be trusted to stay on the
sidewalk, they can’t keep their potential missiles to themselves either.
And now for the modest proposal. Last June, California enacted an
assisted-suicide law. It is now
legal in that state to plan and execute your own death and funeral, and people
have already started taking advantage of this law. We now see the interesting spectacle of Californians on the
one hand spending $200 million to stop a few dozen people a year from doing
themselves in, and on the other hand, encouraging people who really want to do
themselves in to go ahead and do it.
For $200 million, a lot of people contemplating suicide
in California could have an all-expense paid trip from wherever they live to
San Francisco. Those with
debilitating diseases could take ambulance rides, and even they might manage to
live it up overnight in the garden of nightlife delights for which San
Francisco is famous. Then, with
all good-byes said, the person could be assisted out onto the sidewalk and take
the time-honored way out that more than 1500 of their fellow citizens have
chosen over the years. And of
course, we wouldn’t want any ugly fish-net suicide deterrent to get in the way,
so there’s where you’d save $200 million.
I don’t expect anybody to jump at this idea (so to
speak), except to say how tacky I am to conflate the people who jump off the
Golden Gate Bridge with the people who take advantage of the new
assisted-suicide law. But the
point I’m trying to make with my proposal is this: is suicide okay, or is it wrong? Or does the answer depend entirely on the convenience of the
It’s beginning to look like the latter is the best
available answer, at least where California is concerned.
Take doctors who want to put some of their suffering
patients out of their misery, but are worried that someone will find out and
charge them with murder.
Solution: pass an
assisted-suicide law that makes it legal.
Now the docs don’t have to worry about murder charges.
Take first responders who, after someone takes their
last high dive from the bridge, have the disagreeable task of conducting a
search, possibly in bad weather, and fishing out said diver from the
drink. It’s expensive, dangerous, and
bad publicity besides. So once the
nets are in place, people who are determined to jump will either find another
bridge, or if they’re really
determined, they’ll jump down onto the net and, using the exercise-honed
athletic skills that many Californians take pride in, they will crawl to the
edge of the net and finish the job.
You heard it here first.
Notice the designers don’t call it a suicide-prevention device, just a suicide deterrent. So even
$200 million isn’t going to reduce the number of suicides from the bridge to
zero, and the authorities implicitly admit that.
All satire aside, I think doing something more to keep
people from jumping off bridges to their deaths is a good idea. And maybe the giant stainless-steel nets
on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge are the best way to do it, although
the price tag gives me pause. The
expenditure of so much money on suicide prevention, on the one hand, and the
passage of a law saying that basically it’s okay to off yourself, on the other
hand, reveals a deep split or inconsistency in attitudes toward suicide in our
most populous state.
This nation’s founders allowed for differences in
belief on the part of its citizens.
But for most of the history of the United States, there was a general
consensus, based upon mostly religious tenets, that suicide, assisted or not,
had no redeeming social value and was to be discouraged in law and in
engineering (and in medicine, too).
As evinced by the assisted-suicide law in California, this consensus has
broken down, at least in that part of the country. And that’s a sad thing, for both those who stand on the
sidewalk of a bridge thinking about jumping, and those who lie in a nursing
home thinking about hastening their own end.