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Author(iz)ing Death: Medical Aid-in-Dying and the Morality of Suicide

By Anita Hannig

Cite As:
Hannig, Anita. 2019. “Author(iz)ing Death: Medical Aid-in-Dying and the Morality of Suicide.” Cultural Anthropology 34, no. 1: 53–77.


In 2017, Oregon marked the twentieth anniversary of enacting the Death with Dignity Act, allowing terminally ill, mentally competent adult patients to end their life by ingesting a lethal medication prescribed by their physician. In U.S. public discourse, medical aid-in-dying is frequently equated with the terminology and morality of suicide, much to the frustration of those who use and administer the law. This article reflects on the stakes of maintaining a distinction between a medically assisted death and the most common cultural category for self-inflicted death—suicide. It uncovers the complicated dialectic between authorship and authorization that characterizes medical assistance in dying and attendant moralities of purposive death, speaking to broader disciplinary concerns in the cultural study of death and medicine. By stressing the primacy of debilitating, life-limiting illness in an aided death and by submitting such a death to the rationale and management of institutionalized medicine, advocates carve out a form of intentional death that occupies a category of its own. The diffusion of agency onto a patient’s fatal illness, medicine, and the state—both discursively and in practice—enhances the moral and social acceptability of an assisted death, which becomes an authorized form of dying that looks very different from the socially deviant act of suicide.


medical aid-in-dying; suicide; agency; rationality; death; medicine; United States