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Politico Promotes a Suicide

by | Mar 20, 2024

By Wesley J. Smith

Politico has published a long story about a big-time political consultant named Hal Malchow who is flying to Switzerland to become dead in one of that country’s notorious suicide clinics. It is an obituary of sorts — before the man’s demise — describing his passion for Democratic politics, his new book, and his visionary strategies for helping that party.

It also promotes his suicide in positive terms because Malchow, now 72, has early Alzheimer’s. From “Hal Malchow Is Going to Die on Thursday”:

In a sense, Hal Malchow has been planning for this day ever since 1987, when a genetic marker test revealed he was likely to develop Alzheimer’s. At the time, he was barely 35 years old, a hustling political operative who had recently come off managing Al Gore’s first Senate campaign while overcome with worry about his mother’s early descent into dementia. (Around her 50th birthday, she was discovered wandering lost in a parking lot in the Mississippi town where she had lived her whole life.)

 

After his mother’s untimely death, in 1990, Malchow was intent on never letting himself endure the same thing. If he showed symptoms for Alzheimer’s, Malchow resolved at the time, he would take his life before he became too diminished — and became a burden to those around him.

I understand that fear. But how have we gotten to the place that elderly people and those with serious conditions and disabilities are considered “burdens” instead of precious brothers and sisters deserving of our care? This theme needs to be resisted if we are going to remain a compassionate and caring culture.

Throughout the story, Malchow’s planned suicide is depicted as empowering:

Malchow returned to the vow he had made half a life earlier about what he would do when Alzheimer’s arrived: “I knew that if it happened, I was not going to let all this play out to the end.” He had seen how responsibility for his mother had fallen on those around her, and he believed it would be unfair to his wife, Anne Marsh, who already suffered from multiple sclerosis. Several American states, including New Mexico, permit euthanasia under so-called death-with-dignity laws, but all require a candidate to have a fatal condition with only months left to live. Malchow did not qualify and had no interest in living until he did. “What’s the point? You know, why sit around the house and watch a little piece of your brain disappear every day?” he says. “And the ordeal for the caretaker is terrible.

My mother died of Alzheimer’s receiving hospice services in my wife’s and my home — my uncle passed in a wonderful memory facility where he received splendid and compassionate care — so I know quite intimately what that disease is. But my mother and uncle’s lives were never “pointless,” nor is anyone’s! Whatever Malchow might fear, this is an insidious message for Politico to communicate to readers. It promotes the dehumanizing idea — most prominently criticized by the bioethicist Charles Camosy — that people with dementia are “throw-away people.” That’s a message of despair and a justification for abandonment.

Malchow contacts a suicide clinic, and is applauded by Senator Mark Warner:

“He thought it through in his own way to get the analysis and make the decision,” says Sen. Mark Warner, who has been a close friend of Malchow’s since the mid-1980s as well as a client during his runs for statewide office in Virginia. “Hal always had a ferocious, independent streak — a resilient stubbornness once he makes up his mind.”

Suicide ideation depicted as resilience. He is also applauded by another friend:

“The way he is approaching Alzheimer’s and his death — and in a sense that way he’s promoting his book — is completely consistent with his principled life,” says Rob McDuff, a Mississippi civil-rights attorney who first encountered Malchow as a teenager attending a youth social-service organization.

 

“He decided he wants to die on his own terms and not have Alzheimer’s take over his last years. It doesn’t surprise me.”

That phrase, “wants to die on his own terms” is true of every suicide. We just don’t applaud them all — yet.

Politico’s story does a pronounced disservice to society because it promotes a destructively discriminatory meme that if one is seriously ill and/or dependent, they should really consider suicide. Not only that, but promoting Malchow’s plan to kill himself as a courageous decision violates the media guidelines on reporting about suicide published by the World Health Organization:

There is overwhelming and ever-increasing evidence that the media can play a significant role in either enhancing suicide prevention efforts or weakening them. The media may provide useful educational information about suicide or may spread misinformation and perpetuate myths about it. Crucially, depending on their content and overarching narrative, media reports about suicide can increase the risk of further deaths by suicide or can help to provide information that may prevent other suicides from occurring.

Specifically, Politico violated these guidelines:

  • Don’t position suicide-related content as the top story, and don’t unduly repeat such stories,
  • Don’t describe the method used.
  • Don’t use language/content which sensationalizes, romanticizes, or normalizes suicide, or that presents it as a viable solution to problems.
  • Don’t report the details of suicide notes. (It seems to me that quoting the suicidal person about his plans is even worse than printing the contents of a note.)

I am probably spitting into the wind with this post, but Politico’s reporting — and other such stories that have been published over many years — disserve society by normalizing assisted suicide and depicting it even as a preferred way to die. And it tells people with dementia that their lives are not worth living. This is very wrong. Politico’s editors should be ashamed.

Editor’s note. Wesley’s great stories appear at National Review Online and are reposted with permission.

Categories: Suicide