Venturing into the pro-suicide pit

Bridgend: The most startling thing about the vile, venal websites that promote suicide is that their language and outlook appear entirely mainstream.

‘I continuously want to kill myself. I have tried but have never been successful. I do not know what to do.’ ‘SOD’ is desperate. According to a comment he or she posted on A Practical Guide to Suicide, one of the internet’s most notorious pro-suicide websites, he or she is seriously sick of life and wants a way out, a ‘final exit’, a foolproof form of ‘self-deliverance’. It isn’t long before ghoulish pro-suicide surfers descend on SOD’s query, like voyeurs around a car crash that has yet to take place, and offer him or her some bloodcurdling advice.

‘Tie piano wire around your neck and jump from a high height. Your momentum will cause you to be decapitated before you hit bottom’, says one entry. Other failed suicide cases argue that because both self-drowning and shooting can go wrong – in a drowning ‘the body will fight to breathe’, and some gunshots ‘miss the brain altogether, taking out both eyes but leaving you alive’ – it is best to stand in a river and then shoot yourself: ‘A shot to the head is not always effective, but if done in water where no one is close by, the result would be almost certain.’

Others give precise details of what concoction of pills one should take to bring about ‘certain death’. One poster says that taking potassium cyanide is the most foolproof form of self-poisoning, causing coma and death within 15 to 45 minutes of swallowing, but ‘unfortunately’ cyanide is hard to get hold of. Some favour a ‘jumping suicide’, advising that jumping from a high bridge into water, where ‘your head and trunk [will] be ruptured’, is the safest bet. I had to stop reading when I got to the section on ‘Pencils Jammed Up Nose’.

As anyone whose online surfing has ever gone astray will know, there is a great deal of vile, venal material on the World Wide Web. But the smattering of pro-suicide websites – sinister, garishly-designed advice hubs for the depressed, sick and properly nihilistic – takes things to another level. Here, people who are actually suicidal seek practical and spiritual advice from ‘suicide experts’, and from surfers who seem to have a perverse interest in discussing suicide methods and their bloody impact on the human body in graphic, salacious detail. These sites are modern meeting places for the depressed and the deranged, where a community of commenters goad each other into taking the final step towards the ‘ultimate freedom’ – that is, non-existence, blackness, the end of all life, hardship, bad feelings and tough choices.

Yet perhaps the most disturbing thing about these sites is how mainstream they sound. These are not alien cults attaching themselves like carbuncles to our otherwise sane, anti-suicidal, ‘pro-life’ society. In fact, they use the language of mainstream pro-euthanasia outfits and charities, and much of the pro-suicide surfers’ disgust for life – both for their own life and also for the idea of human life itself – is heavily influenced by today’s misanthropic view of people as a plague and a drain on the planet. The shocking thing about these sick sites is that they are not otherworldly: in terms of their tone and outlook, they are very much of our world; they are the dark underbelly of a society that finds it hard to put a positive case for the virtues of human life, love and longing.

Sanctioning death

Pro-suicide websites are back in the news following the recent spate of suicides in Bridgend, south Wales. Despite a stark lack of evidence that the 17 suicides amongst young people in Bridgend are connected, or that any of them was pushed towards self-destruction by the ravings of a pro-suicide website, still these sites have been singled out for assault by the police, the authorities and the media. ‘The role of the internet needs more attention’, says one commentator. ‘I know all the arguments about censorship, but servers should be able to shut down suicide websites.’ (1)

Possibly against my better judgement, I decided to venture into this darkest, most morally vacuous corner of the World Wide Web to find out how influential pro-death websites actually are. Visiting these sites, some of which positively celebrate the pleasures of self-destruction and advise the suicidal to ‘leave no trace behind’ so that ‘your stupid family’ will spend the rest of their days wondering what happened to you, makes one feel both pity and nausea – pity for the genuine commenters who clearly need to seek serious medical attention rather than submit themselves to the judgement of cheering and jeering pro-suicide death-merchants, and nausea at some of the detailed tips, and accompanying photographs, provided by the pro-suicide lobby.

Yet for all of their self-proclaimed edginess and snuff pretensions, many of these sites are parasitical on mainstream advice and arguments. A Practical Guide to Suicide, a pro-suicide site hosted by a Satanist-leaning online outfit called Satan Service, gets many of its practical tips from a book called Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying by Derek Humphry, a well-known pro-euthanasia campaigner. Humphry’s book, which offers how-to tips on committing suicide for terminally ill people, was first published in 1991 and is now in its third edition. It is a former New York Times bestseller. The Satan Service’s advice on using potassium cyanide comes directly from Humphry’s book, as does its poisoning-and-suffocation advice: ‘[Humphry suggests] ingestion of Seconal (secobarbital) and/or Nembutal (pentobarbital) combined with a plastic bag over the head to ensure suffocation while comatose.’

Humphry’s work is also reproduced in the discussion forum alt.suicide.holiday, one of the most graphic and ruthless pro-suicide websites (some web-surfers use the term ‘holiday’ to refer to suicide). Alt.suicide.holiday lists three books by Humphry in its bibliography, and flags up his proposed methods of poisoning. It offers readers advice on what sort of pills to take and says overdosing is always more reliable ‘with plastic bag and rubber band’ – that is, poison yourself and then follow it up with suffocation. The site advises: ‘Use bag and band. Alcohol as well as antihistamine on an empty stomach. Vesperax is Humphry’s favourite.’

Humphry is no crank – he is a mainstream journalist and author who is extremely influential in respectable pro-euthanasia circles on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a past president and a current adviser to the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, whose member groups include Compassion and Choices and the Final Exit Network, two of the most influential pro-euthanasia groups in the US, as well as Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, a mainstream organisation in Britain that is supported by numerous middle-class commentators, actors and ‘end-of-life’ activists. Alt.suicide.holiday lists Humphry’s work alongside British pro-euthanasia groups in its Bibliography/Sources. These foul pro-suicide sites arouse handwringing horror in the press – yet frequently they come across like ‘mirror sites’ for respectable pro-euthanasia organisations, which often win accolades and sympathy in the press for their ‘brave campaigning’ for the right to die.

Pro-euthanasia groups will argue that their advice is aimed solely at terminally ill people, and that they have no control over how their material is used and abused by pro-suicide websites. Yet Humphry recognises that his work is used by the suicidal as well as the terminally ill, and he doesn’t seem especially perturbed by this fact. In the second edition of his bestselling text Final Exit, he wrote: ‘In its first 10 years, this book was occasionally used by persons for whom it was not intended – the deeply depressed and the mentally ill. This misuse I regret but can do nothing about. [Some] of us do not have the emotional and intellectual equipment to cope with a lifetime of troubles… and elect to die. Self-destruction of a physically fit person is always a tragic waste of life and hurtful to survivors, but life is a personal responsibility. We must each decide for ourselves.’ (2)

This kind of language, which almost normalises suicide as an understandable reaction to hardship, is also widespread on pro-suicide websites. Users argue that they cannot ‘emotionally cope’ with life or their parents or school, and so they have ‘elected to die’, or have opted for ‘self-deliverance’ – the PC phrase for suicide that appears in the subheading to Humphry’s book – over perseverance in the face of life’s difficulties.

The truth is that respectable pro-euthanasia campaigns and frowned-upon pro-suicide websites have more in common than shared tips on poisoning, suffocating and the bag-and-band approach to ending one’s life – they also fundamentally occupy the same moral plane. Both the public, celebrated campaigns for the right to die and the hidden, derided pro-suicide networks on the web believe that death is a legitimate response to trial and tribulation, whether of the physical or the emotional variety. Pro-euthanasia campaigners, who have upped their game in recent years, might focus on winning the narrow, legalised ‘right to die’ for sick people in extreme pain, yet they explicitly give sanction to the idea that self-destruction is a legitimate, even a sensible, response to a hard life. Nowhere is this sanctioning of death more tightly embraced and celebrated than on pro-suicide websites. These online dungeons of discussion look like the euthanasia lobby’s demented cousin rather than being something truly foreign to Western culture. Numerous contributors to pro-suicide websites ask feverishly where they can get hold of Humphry’s Final Exit, a book written, remember, by an adviser to the pro-euthanasia lobby around the world. One asks: ‘Regarding Final Exit… does anyone have or has anyone read this book? If so, please help me. I really need to go on a nice, warm, suicide holiday.’

Pro-suicide websites also reproduce the language of the euthanasia lobby. Some sites describe themselves as ‘pro-choice’ rather than ‘pro-suicide’, and they talk about the ‘right to die’ or the ‘right to commit suicide’. Here, surfers borrow heavily from the euthanasia lobby’s transformation of the debate about death into a discussion of ‘choice’ and ‘rights’. Some of the sites also insist that no one should pass judgement against suicidal visitors, but instead should ‘accept their decision’ and ‘encourage the choice they have made’ – this normally translates into a free-for-all goading of the suicidal visitor to finish himself off. Yet this is only a more sinister expression of what is a key policy for a mainstream charity like the Samaritans, which also takes a non-judgemental approach to those who, in Derek Humphry’s words, do not have the ‘emotional or intellectual equipment’ to cope with life. A local London newspaper recently reported that ‘vulnerable children’ responding to a ‘get help’ poster in schools could receive an email from the Samaritans saying: ‘Callers remain responsible for their own lives and do not lose the right to make decisions, even if that decision is to take their own life.’ (3) Precisely the same rules about not criticising those who have made the personal decision to end their lives apply on most pro-suicide websites. Indeed, it is notable that one of the more depraved suicide sites mentions the Samaritans in its list of organisations, not so much because it might help suicidal people to think again, but because it has an apparently welcome hands-off attitude: ‘Samaritans: British; suicide hotlines and prevention; non-interventionist approach.’

Suicide and environmentalism

Other suicide websites seem to thrive on today’s deep-green outlook, which says that the planet is overpopulated and humanity is a diseased mass destroying his natural environment. The Church of Euthanasia (CofE), a US-based, green-leaning, massively misanthropic, population-control group, runs one of the most notorious pro-suicide websites. Its advice page ‘How to Commit Suicide’ provided detailed information on how to bring about death by using a canister of helium. The CofE was forced to remove the page in 2003 after a 52-year-old woman in St Louis followed its instructions to the letter. She was found dead with printouts from the CofE’s ‘How to Commit Suicide’ page near her body. It was the first time a pro-suicide website seemed clearly to have assisted a suicide.

Yet for all of its cranky arguments – it celebrated 9/11 in a video called ‘I Like To Watch’ showing a woman licking the WTC as 2,000 people perished within – the CofE is also a warped product of mainstream misanthropy. Its arguments about a ‘plague’ of human beings overrunning the Earth echo the views of every mainstream NGO, government organisation and environmentalist campaign group. The CofE argues that if we don’t do something drastic to reduce human numbers, then nature will do it for us: ‘The planet is a living being, and quite capable of self-defence. If the two-leggeds cannot control their numbers, she will do it for them, and her measures will be harsh.’ This is only a crankier expression of the argument put forward by the head of the UK Optimum Population Trust, an organisation which counts the government adviser Jonathon Porritt amongst its advisers, in an interview on spiked recently: ‘[W]e can either stop population growing by making sure everybody has the family planning help that they need and want… or it will be one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse that bumps us off.’ (4) Indeed, like the OPT, the CofE has a scary-looking ‘population clock’ on its homepage, which counts the number of new humans being born every second, who are apparently all adding to humanity’s destruction of the Earth.

Some European pro-suicide websites celebrate the deep-green thinking of Pekka-Eric Auvinen, the 18-year-old Finn who shot seven people in his school in November last year. They reproduce Auvinen’s video testimonies and manifestos in which he argued, among other things, that ‘the most central and irrational faith among people is the faith in technology and economical growth’, and ‘[the fact] that there are billions of people over 60kg on this planet is recklessness’. In one Auvinen video, the words ‘I wish that death to mankind comes soon’ are flashed up. Again, these ideas – that belief in economic growth is seriously misplaced and the planet is overpopulated by overweight people – are entirely mainstream today. The pro-suicide websites take them to their frighteningly logical conclusion by encouraging people to do something about the state of our world: kill yourself.

The shutting down of the CofE’s ‘How To’ page, and the argument for closing down other eco-extreme pro-suicide websites, highlights the folly of the censorious approach to the pro-suicide phenomenon. The CofE was forced to remove the page that spelled out to people exactly how to finish themselves off, yet the rest of its content – its hysterical claims about the disgusting and destructive nature of mankind – went unchallenged. The focus of those concerned about pro-suicide websites is always narrowly on limiting access to practical information rather than on putting the case for life, for celebrating the birth of more people, for looking at what is positive in the human experience. In Britain, charity and media guidelines on the reporting of suicide warn media outlets to avoid giving ‘excessive detail’ about how an individual committed suicide (5). Unable morally to challenge suicide, or to put the argument against today’s widespread green and pro-death misanthropy, the powers-that-be simply seek to remove ‘how to’ guidelines and hope that this will be enough to put people off suicide. In fact, it only highlights their own inability to assert what is potentially wonderful and meaningful about human life.

The end of stigma

The most striking thing that pro-suicide websites and the suicide-concerned mainstream share in common is their belief that suicide should be de-stigmatised. The website Encouraging Suicide (its title says it all) slams the ‘stigma and ignorance’ that surrounds suicide and calls for it to be seen as something rational, as a ‘choice’. This echoes the arguments of virtually every mental health charity in Britain and America today, which have uniformly demanded over the past 20 years that the stigma attached to suicide be removed so that we can talk about it more openly. An open and honest debate about suicide would, of course, be welcome. But the main consequence of the campaign to de-stigmatise suicide today, in a time when human life is devalued, has been to normalise it, to present it as an acceptable and even respectable response to personal difficulty.

Stigmatisation in the past no doubt made suicidal people feel isolated, and may have stopped them from seeking help. Yet it also sent a clear message about the value of life and the ability of humans to overcome terrible obstacles and start afresh. St Thomas Aquinas argued: ‘Since every man is part of a community, what happens to him must affect the community, with the consequence that to kill oneself is to do an injury to that community.’ (6) Today, suicide is likely to be discussed as a non-stigmatising personal choice which should be respected; some leading commentators even describe it as brave and courageous (7). Few think about the impact that suicide has on ‘the community’, both on the local community and family that is directly affected by an individual’s death, and also on the wellbeing and outlook of the broader community if suicide – the final exit, self-deliverance, self-termination – is relativistically accepted as something normal, even honourable.

Pro-suicide websites look to me like the end product of today’s normalisation of suicide. In these online arenas, suicide is completely free from stigma, and is openly discussed as a choice, even a ‘pleasure’, something that will ‘free us’ from mental and emotional distress or from our selfish destruction of the planet. Banning such sites will achieve precisely nothing – we would do better to challenge the mainstream, above-board culture of fatalism that these sites feverishly feast upon.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that the really dangerous ‘epidemic’ is one of miserabilism, not suicide. Tiffany Jenkins said Channel 4’s morbid obsessions would not further the conversation about the purpose of life. Frank Furedi confronted the New Misanthropy. Kevin Yuill reviewed a book by Neil M Gorsuch which presented a killer argument against assisted suicide.Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.

References:

spiked is not providing references or links to the pro-suicide websites. We may be opposed to banning them, but that doesn’t mean we have to advertise them.

(1) Teenagers need to be taught the facts of death, Scotland on Sunday, 24 February 2008

(2) Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, Derek Humphry, 2001 edition

(3) A suicide epidemic? Nonsense, Mick Hume, The Times, 12 February 2008

(4) See I agree with Ethan: bring on the recession!, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Open door, Guardian, 25 February 2008

(6) Quoted in Suicide in the Middle Ages: Volume II, The Curse on Self-Murder, Alexander Murray, 2001

(7) Taking your life is a cowardly betrayal that we should never condone, Mick Hume, The Times, 12 November 2004

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