Behind Stephen Hawking’s remarks on assisted suicide

By Dave Andrusko

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

Next Monday, June 15, The British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC) will air “Dara O’Briain meets Stephen Hawking.” I know nothing about O’Briain other than Arts Correspondent Hannah Furness describes him as “a comedian and broadcaster who has a degree in theoretical physics.”

Not exactly what you would necessarily expect (even on the BBC), although this helps O’Briain the capacity to understand the world renowned physicist.

Hawking, who has motor neurone disease, is always in the news, it seems, lately because of “The Theory of Everything,” the movie made of Hawking as a young man before he was stricken by the disease and the early years of his struggle to cope. Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his performance.

But, sadly, Hawking is also getting a lot of media attention for tentative support for the idea of assisted suicide.

Furness first tells us that in 2013 Hawking in “offered his public support to the discussion of assisted dying, saying: ‘We don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?’”

With that as a backdrop, she offers what amounts to a synopsis on this facet of the program. Let me offer it in its entirety.

When asked by O’Briain about his support for assisted dying, and what condition he would have to be in to consider it for himself, the physicist said: “To keep someone alive against their wishes is the ultimate indignity.

“I would consider assisted suicide only if I were in great pain or felt I had nothing more to contribute but was just a burden to those around me.”

But, he added: “I am damned if I’m going to die before I have unraveled more of the universe.”

He is not in pain, he said, but suffers occasional discomfort because he cannot adjust his own position.

However something presented earlier in the story provides an essential piece of context:

In an interview with Dara O’Briain, for a new BBC program, the world-renowned scientist disclosed he suffered bouts of loneliness, because people can be afraid to talk to him or let him answer.

Building on that, Furness tells her readers that O’Briain asks the 73-year-old physicist, “who communicates through his famous speech synthesizer, whether he ever finds life lonely.” His response?

“At times I get very lonely because people are afraid to talk to me or don’t wait for me to write a response,” said Prof Hawking, who is currently trialling even more sophisticated communication technology.

“I’m shy and tired at times. I find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know.”

Hawking, it would appear, is driven to talk about assisted suicide primarily for the same sorts of reasons the rest of us with IQs 50 points lower do: loneliness, a fear of rejection and alienation, and the dread of not being able to contribute.

In other words, pain (or “suffering”) does not appear to be a primary or even secondary issue.

Wesley Smith eloquently and firmly responded to Hawking’s remarks:

Hawking is not just a man on the street. His triumphing in the face of what is usually a relatively swift-acting terminal disease, to become one of history’s greatest scientists, has been a great source of hope to people going through all sorts of terrible difficulties.

By saying that being a burden or unable to contribute justifies suicide–the actual issue is rarely pain, which can be significantly alleviated–Hawking abandons those who should be able to look to him as an inspiration for keeping on keeping on.