Final Exit Network, an organization that advocates euthanasia, has begun posting stark, black and yellow billboards along highways that state, "My life. My death. My choice." The group apparently wants to stimulate discussion about physician-assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia.
Debating the pros and cons of euthanasia falls squarely into the realm of free speech, as does posting billboards about it. If the billboards read, "We Support Euthanasia, Learn More," I would have no problem with it. Similarly, I wouldn't have an issue with a billboard that read, "You Should Control Every Moment of Your Life, Until the Very End."
As a psychiatrist, however, I find the current billboards irresponsible and dangerous. Tens of millions of Americans suffer with major depression. Tens of thousands of people with major depression commit suicide every year. Advertising to the general public that death is a choice and that taking one's life is an exercise of free will is likely to expose a vulnerable population to a message that could literally lead them to needlessly end their lives during the most fragile moments of their lives.
Major depression, by the way, is one of the most treatable psychiatric illnesses. More than 90 percent of those afflicted will make a complete recovery.
In this ill-conceived advertising campaign, Final Exit Network makes no apparent attempt to warn those with major depression (or severe panic disorder or severe eating disorders-which can also lead to deep despondency) that they should get help and hold fast to hope, rather than contemplating rash acts. Theirs is a public information campaign that shows no consideration for the potential damage it could do.
Freedom of speech has few limits, as is appropriate. If it can be proven, however, that these billboards contribute to any individual taking his or her life while suffering with depression (or another mental illness), I believe that Final Exit Network should be sued and held liable. The emotional harm done would have been predictable, and the callousness of the group reprehensible.
The billboard company that accepted these advertisements should be ashamed of itself, should refund Final Exit Network's money and take them down.
America, by the way, has another treasured way for people to express themselves. It's called civil disobedience and involves breaking the law when conscience requires it. In this case, I have no problem with anyone who carefully covers the words on these billboards and is willing to pay the consequences for defacing them. Lives are at stake, and a greater good would be served.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com.Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.