Jacob M. Appel is a bioethicist and fiction writer. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.D. from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
Appel has also published short fiction in more than one hundred literary journals. His short story, Shell Game With Organs, won the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest in 1998. His story about two census takers, "Counting," was shortlisted for the O. Henry Award in 2001. Other stories received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006 and 2007.
He is admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.
Appel contributed a Dangerous Idea to Big Think's "Month of Thinking Dangerously," advocating that we add trace amounts of lithium to our drinking water to help reduce the suicide rate.
Appel is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: Who should be allowed to commit suicide?
Jacob Appel: The short answer, I would say, is anyone. But the real answer I think is, almost anyone. I am very comfortable with the system that for a very acute period of time protects from their own worst instincts. But I do mean for a very acute period of time. I think the paradigmatic example of someone you might want to prevent from committing suicide is the teenager who breaks up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and tries to overdose on Tylenol. And to tell them, for a few days, we’re going to hospitalize you against your will doesn’t seem that reasonable to me.
In contrast, someone who has suffered from chronic depression throughout their life with multiple suicide attempts clearly, modern medicine and modern psychiatry has been unable to help this person. While I wouldn’t necessarily choose to end my life under those circumstances, I would respect someone else’s right to do so. So the real standard I would use is, does this person on the one hand have the capacity to make this decision. Are they thinking clearly, are they thinking rationally? And secondly, can they demonstrate this capacity over a prolonged period of several days rather than in an instant? And I think the vast majority of people who wish to commit suicide wouldn’t meet most of those criteria.
The objections to all of these phenomena are really not what people say they are.