No License to Kill

NEWSPAPERS ENCOUNTER the problem all the time. Print an article exposing dissension in a group, or casting aspersions on some noble cause, and complaints will pour in. People worry about the press's responsibility to exercise its power with delicacy, the ability of the printed word to wreak havoc in people's lives, the need for social restraints to balance writers' unassailable freedom to publish whatever they want. It's rare, however, that the book industry faces such a conundrum, and rarer still that authorities try to crack down on book publishers. Freedom-of-the-press buffs, then, will do well to watch closely as a French publishing house and two Parisian author-journalists grapple the moral questions surrounding their publication of a how-to manual on committing suicide.

Published last April, the Suicide Mode D'Emploi ('Suicide Operating Instructions') has already sold 50,000 copies. Publisher Alain Moreau predicts it will bring in $210,000 this year. Attempts in France to ban the book--which contains a chapter of 50 easy, painless and lethal "recipes"--have ranged from the Roman Catholic Church and the Ministry of Health to the parents of one of the 10 people thought to have succeeded in killing themselves by following the book's advice.

And, of course, the controversy raging in the press has been fantastic for sales. An employee at Schoenhof's on Mass. Ave., which is attached to a French publishing concern, says the book is now available in every bookstore in France. Moreau, the publisher, told the Boston Globe this month that he had "never had such a response from the public" in 45 years in the business. "The bulk" of the 500 letters of reaction he had received were from "elderly people wanting to know where they could buy the book."

Moreau justifies publication on the grounds that the right to commit suicide is inalienable and that the book only furnishes the "means to execute" it. That's an argument shunned by even most euthanasia societies, several of which quietly produce and selectively distribute similar booklets. The two authors, Claude Gillon and Yves le Bonnied, are more sensible. They refuse all interviews. They know, after all, that they can legally get away with printing the book; France has no laws against aiding suicide. Legally, the authors are sitting pretty, and it will undoubtedly take time for even the most passionately angry interest group to ban the books.

WHAT MAKES the suicide book dispute so different from ordinary squabbles over the press is the nature of what's being so widely disseminated. Not reckless or untrue charges, not the misguided political protest to overthrow a ruling regime, but simple how-to information. Over the years, participants in the freedom-of-the-press debate have followed the principle that, if a piece of information is accurate, it shouldn't be withheld.

It comes almost instinctively to us, weaned on the precepts of free speech and openness, to argue always for knowledge over suppression of fact, for light over darkness. Silly books--like those on Garfield, diets, sex, herpes and Presidential sex partners may provoke outrage for a time, especially since their advice is often dubious at best. Yet our fury soon subsides to irritation, as we reach the tacit decision that it's worth suffering floods of such drek to keep the press totally open and free.

The kind of information disseminated in Suicide, however, necessitates a long and critical look. Freedom-of-the-press laws themselves probably should be sacrosanct, but the press's "no harm done" mindset that encourages it to abuse its free reign warrants scrutiny. Consider not just the "information" found in Suicide, but the medical and psychological context surrounding it.

Most suicide attempts are, in fact, not so much attempts to die as last-ditch cries for help. French psychiatrist and suicide specialist Jean Pierre Soubrier estimates that nine out of 10 people trying to commit suicide don't really want to succeed. The prevalence of "suicidal fantasies" which never come to completion is also common knowledge. Both syndromes, of course, could be radically and tragically altered by access to 50 painless "cocktails" guaranteeing a gentle death.

Publisher Moreau makes a cynical and transparent attempt to defend Suicide on the grounds that "the right of suicide is an inalienable right, like the right to work, the right to like certain things, the right to publish." The last item in the series, of course, is key. It doesn't take much imagination to see the results if life-and-death information becomes part of the general flow of carelessly-tossed-off junk books.

Already, in Texas, a similar moral dilemma has surfaced with the publication of a manual of "friendly practical advice on how to commit murder." Despite some scattered protest, the level of public controversy has been low compared to that in France, probably because emphasis on free-speech rights and acquired callousness to the junk-book market make it seem just another tome to ignore.

But agreeing that publishers have the right to print anything they want is no excuse to ignore other possible ways of protecting society's potentially suicidal readers. Firmly supporting freedom of the press is irreproachable, but insisting that this right, unlike all other value judgments, must be exercised in a vacuum is absurd. Efforts to control Suicide indirectly--like the vigorous efforts of French groups to pass laws punishing suicide "accomplices" are simply essential in keeping scrutiny of the question alive. There is no point in being doctrinaire about such power.