A Modest Proposal to save California $200 million

In order to forestall a lot of hate mail, the following blog is written in the tradition of 18th Century satirist Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal." It is not meant to be taken seriously.

With that out of the way, I have a modest proposal to save the good citizens of California over $200 million. That is the estimated cost of a suicide-deterrent net project that is going to be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Examiner.

Opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is as iconic a symbol of San Francisco as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. But shortly after it opened, its builders found that they had constructed what lawyers call an attractive hazard, like an unfenced swimming pool in a neighborhood full of small children. The 240-foot plunge from the sidewalk of the bridge to the deep waters below began to draw despondent individuals of all kinds, who generally did not survive their high dives.

According to the Examiner, 1,558 people have committed suicide by diving from the bridge, an average of about one person every two or three weeks. And this is despite intensive efforts of patrolmen specially trained to spot depressed-looking loners who evince an unhealthy-looking interest in the view from the sidewalk.

So at long last, after numerous engineering proposals and at least one squabble over who should have won the bid, engineers plan to install a wire-rope mesh on the bridge, about 20 feet below the level of the sidewalk and extending 20 feet out on both sides. The rendering posted online makes it look fairly unobtrusive, but it will inevitably change the appearance of the bridge, sort of like putting fishnet hose on the legs of a beautiful woman. (Sometimes it helps, but generally it just looks tacky.)

So if you've never seen the bridge in its present netless state, you'd better go look fast, because soon they will put up temporary fences along the sidewalks to keep people from throwing things at the construction workers below. This last measure is a consequence of sad experience—pedestrians evidently not only can't be trusted to stay on the sidewalk, they can't keep their potential missiles to themselves either.

And now for the modest proposal. Last June, California enacted an assisted-suicide law. It is now legal in that state to plan and execute your own death and funeral, and people have already started taking advantage of this law. We now see the interesting spectacle of Californians on the one hand spending $200 million to stop a few dozen people a year from doing themselves in, and on the other hand, encouraging people who really want to do themselves in to go ahead and do it.

For US$200 million, a lot of people contemplating suicide in California could have an all-expense paid trip from wherever they live to San Francisco. Those with debilitating diseases could take ambulance rides, and even they might manage to live it up overnight in the garden of nightlife delights for which San Francisco is famous.

Then, with all good-byes said, the person could be assisted out onto the sidewalk and take the time-honored way out that more than 1500 of their fellow citizens have chosen over the years. And of course, we wouldn't want any ugly fish-net suicide deterrent to get in the way, so there's where you'd save $200 million.

I don't expect anybody to jump at this idea (so to speak), except to say how tacky I am to conflate the people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge with the people who take advantage of the new assisted-suicide law. But the point I'm trying to make with my proposal is this: is suicide okay, or is it wrong? Or does the answer depend entirely on the convenience of the professionals involved?

It's beginning to look like the latter is the best available answer, at least where California is concerned.

Take doctors who want to put some of their suffering patients out of their misery, but are worried that someone will find out and charge them with murder. Solution: pass an assisted-suicide law that makes it legal. Now the docs don't have to worry about murder charges.

Take first responders who, after someone takes their last high dive from the bridge, have the disagreeable task of conducting a search, possibly in bad weather, and fishing out said diver from the drink. It's expensive, dangerous, and bad publicity besides. So once the nets are in place, people who are determined to jump will either find another bridge, or if they're really determined, they'll jump down onto the net and, using the exercise-honed athletic skills that many Californians take pride in, they will crawl to the edge of the net and finish the job. You heard it here first.

Notice the designers don't call it a suicide-prevention device, just a suicide deterrent. So even $200 million isn't going to reduce the number of suicides from the bridge to zero, and the authorities implicitly admit that.

All satire aside, I think doing something more to keep people from jumping off bridges to their deaths is a good idea. And maybe the giant stainless-steel nets on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge are the best way to do it, although the price tag gives me pause.

The expenditure of so much money on suicide prevention, on the one hand, and the passage of a law saying that basically it's okay to off yourself, on the other hand, reveals a deep split or inconsistency in attitudes toward suicide in our most populous state.

This nation's founders allowed for differences in belief on the part of its citizens. But for most of the history of the United States, there was a general consensus, based upon mostly religious tenets, that suicide, assisted or not, had no redeeming social value and was to be discouraged in law and in engineering (and in medicine, too). As evinced by the assisted-suicide law in California, this consensus has broken down, at least in that part of the country.

And that's a sad thing, for both those who stand on the sidewalk of a bridge thinking about jumping, and those who lie in a nursing home thinking about hastening their own end.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.


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