SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah professor hopes a new online database will change the way people talk and think about an issue charged by historical, cultural and personal influences.
The Ethics of Suicide Digital Archive, which compiles texts on suicide written between almost 4,000 years ago and the voices of today, was highlighted Monday by the university's J. Willard Marriott Library. The project is the result of almost 40 years of research, and the content is now free and open to the public.
Margaret Battin, professor of philosophy and medical ethics at the U., said her research aims to provide broader context around the controversial complexities of a person taking their own life.
"When we speak of suicide, our response tends to be monolithic. We recognize its heritage as a sin, a crime and the product of mental illness," Battin said. "But we don't look more closely at what's involved and what it is. We forget there are many other issues in which a person takes steps that result in their death, or are in some way the authors of their own death."
As an example, Battin highlighted the difference between a businessman who kills himself due to financial pressures and a soldier who falls on a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers. Other possibilities, such as a person's decision to end their life because of illness, present nuances that people should consider beyond the suicide label, she said.
Battin's research considers how Egyptians viewed suicide in 1937 B.C., the ethical analysis of suicide by Plato, the practices of Native Americans, the war principles of Japanese Kamikaze pilots, and the context behind dozens of other cultures and ages.
It's a topic Battin is well acquainted with beyond the research. In 2008, her husband, Brooke Hopkins, was rendered quadriplegic after a bicycle accident. Almost five years after the accident, Hopkins made a careful and deliberate decision to discontinue using his ventilator.
"If I can do anything with this volume, it's to try to challenge that monolithic way of thinking about (suicide) and undercut some of the stigma that goes with it and try to see a way in which it's possible to harmonize suicide prevention with more understanding that may recognize there are occasions in which a self-caused death might be appropriate," she said. "You can see how controversial that might be."
The online database is a more detailed accompaniment of Battin's book published this year, "The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources," and will be permanently maintained by the J. Willard Marriott Library.
Hosting so much content online is no small undertaking, said Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at the library. But compiling the research both in print and online will ensure better access for people in Utah and elsewhere, he said.
"This is a really genuinely exciting project," Anderson said. "'The Ethics of Suicide' is simultaneously easily readable, fully searchable, portable, expandable, dynamic, static, globally available, costly and free, which is a pretty impressive achievement."
The ethical complexities of suicide are not new to Utahns. This year, the Legislature considered a bill, known as the Utah Death with Dignity Act, that would have established a legal process by which terminally ill Utahns could obtain medication to end their life. The bill was put on hold for further study.
Overall, Battin said, suicides take more lives in Utah than automobile accidents or homicides. Violent suicides also continue to impact Utah families in other ways.
Allyson Mower, a copyright librarian who specializes in scholarly communications at the U., said she hopes the database will help Utahns find answers to questions about suicide more easily.
"I think a lot of people start their searching online," Mower said. "Especially a topic like suicide — the ethics of it, or prevention of it, or discussion of it — I think having as much good information on the Web on that topic as possible is a good thing."
The database can be viewed at ethicsofsuicide.lib.utah.edu. Those seeking help with suicide can call the national crisis hotline at 800-273-8255.