(Belated) reflection on assisted dying

I know assisted dying is somewhat past topical, however I continue feel that the recent public debate on the subject missed the key point. The main argument advanced against assisted dying was about protection of the vulnerable. Whilst I sympathise strongly with this argument, I think it is secondary. The primary argument against assisted dying, it seems to me, is that it represents a dangerously wrong revolution in our perspective on suicide.

That’s not to say thinking should not change in general. Indeed, the last few hundred years have witnessed large and very positive changes in our attitudes towards suicide. It used to be considered a criminal act to commit suicide and those who died by suicide were buried at a crossroad – criminals disposed of on unconsecrated ground. Two ground-breaking changes to the law, in 1823 and 1961, changed all of this. The perspective of the church has also been changing over this time and I doubt many Church of England clergy these days would see the funeral of a suicide as any different to the funeral of someone who died under some other tragic circumstance. (Although, to the surprise of many of us who had been unwittingly breaking the rules, this only became formally sanctioned at the General Synod meeting in February this year).

These changes have been good changes. In the past, society blamed those who killed themselves. Now, we respond (at our best) with compassion. We saw this with Robin Williams’s death last year. Suddenly everyone was talking about depression, not in the hushed, embarrassed tones reserved for family shame, but boldly proclaiming that depression is a disease that might happen to anyone, just like other diseases. And just as if Robin Williams had died in, say, an accident, we allowed ourselves to grieve him as a victim, not a perpetrator. And we asked ourselves: how might we save others from becoming victims to depression?

The changes in our attitudes over the past two hundred years have been good changes. But not all change is good and, often, the momentum of change takes us way past the mark. Like a pendulum, forever seeking the gravitational sweet spot at the bottom of the swing, we fail to stop where we ought. I think the campaign for assisted dying does just this. We have come from viewing suicide as a crime to viewing it as a tragedy. Now we are asked go even further and view it as a virtue: dying with dignity and courage. We have come from seeing those who kill themselves as perpetrators to seeing them as victims. Now we are asked to go further and see them as heroes of self-determination: achieving the ultimate fulfilment of their autonomy.

This is the crux of what is wrong with the idea of assisted dying: it redefines our understanding of suicide. Whereas we have always, in the past, viewed suicide as an enemy of humanity (whether we called it “sin” or whether we called it “symptom”), now we are asked to believe that, at least sometimes, it is a friend. And, if sometimes a friend, why not always a friend? Why, indeed, deny suicide to anyone who wants it?

And so we utterly fail and betray the Robin Williamses of the world. We encourage people to take the counsel of despair. Indeed, if you want to talk about the vulnerable, surely all those who consider voluntary death are vulnerable, most especially those who struggle with depression. A society with assisted dying would not lament Robin Williams’s death, but would celebrate his ability to maximise his independence and individuality.

Terry Pratchett attempted to argue (in A Slip of the Keyboard) that suicide is different to assisted dying. He wrote:

Suicide is fear, shame, despair and grief. It is madness. Those brave souls lately seeking death abroad seem to me, on the other hand, to be gifted with a furious sanity. They have seen their future, and they don’t want to be part of it.

But the same can be said (indeed, was said in her suicide letter) by the manic depressive wife of a friend of mine who committed suicide as she began to emerge from a bout of depression: I have seen the future and I want out. She might have been depressed, but her argument was clear and rational. Must I tell my friend, then, that her “suicide” is actually “assisted dying” and is to be celebrated?

Assisted dying fails those who face despair. And more, it also fails their families and friends. It glorifies self-determination over human relationships. GK Chesterton says (in Orthodoxy), “The man who kills himself, kills all men. As far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” Chesterton’s view needs to be tempered by the advances in compassion (and gender neutral speech) over the last hundred years, but his point remains strong: suicide is the unilateral ending of all human relationships and that is extremely harmful.

In answer to the question, “Why must I continue in this meaningless suffering?”, we must say, “But the suffering is not meaningless – it affirms the worth of all those who you know and love”. And we must also say, “Let us share one another’s pain”. Indeed, I think there is a strong case to be made that it is the meaninglessness of the suffering which causes people to desire death far more than it is the pain. Let us not rob people of meaning by further affirming the false notion that all people are autonomous, islands entire of themselves. And let us not allow further erosion of the notion that pain should be shared by a community of love. Let us not move on to this new view of suicide. Let us stick with seeing it as a tragedy.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

-John Donne

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