Life before death

Diane Pretty has taken her appeal for the 'right to die' from the UK House of Lords to the European Court of Human Rights - but wouldn't it be better to keep the taboo surrounding suicide?

Kevin Yuill

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It is nearly impossible not to feel sympathy for Diane Pretty – the UK-based woman suffering from motor neurone disease who lost her latest appeal for the ‘right to die’, assisted by her husband, at the House of Lords in London on 29 November 2001.

With her simple request for a guarantee that her husband will not be prosecuted for helping her die, isn’t Pretty’s case just a straightforward issue of individual autonomy for a woman who is physically unable to terminate her own life?

In many ways, this is an appealing argument. Why should the state become involved in intimate decisions about life and death, setting bureaucratic regulations against individuals being able to take their own lives when those lives become too painful and unbearable? But the issue goes much deeper than one of individual autonomy.

We should resist the emotional pull of the case and ask some hard questions. Does Pretty really want to die? If she does, surely she would just have planned it and carried it out, without assistance and without fanfare? Somebody truly determined to take their own life, however physically incapacitated, could surely find a way. Maybe we can conclude that Pretty still wants to live?

In reality, all individuals not only already have the ‘right’ to take their own lives (after all, there can be no legal recourse against an individual who has committed suicide) – they also have the means to do it. Each of the patients of Jack Kevorkian – the US doctor who assisted over 100 suicides and who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence – had the ability to eventuate their own deaths. With a little forward planning and, most importantly, the will to do it, it is difficult to imagine a situation where suicide was completely impossible.

Maybe, some will argue, Pretty has decided that she wants to die when the horrific physical degeneration caused by her illness becomes more real. But then maybe she will change her mind again, as she adjusts to the physical disabilities. Time may be measured in minutes and hours, but life cannot. It’s what you make of the time, not how much time you have, that matters. How can Pretty be so certain that what will come is not worth having? What she really seems to be arguing for is for all of us to condone the act and to feel an obligation to help her do it. This case is about legitimating the sense of despair that Pretty and others feel.

But there are good reasons for suicide remaining a taboo. It is a demoralising act, and often an indictment of those who had been nearest and dearest to the person who has committed suicide. There is also much evidence that people change their minds about committing suicide. Prominent campaigners for the legalisation of euthanasia Annie Lindsell in Britain and 1960s acid guru Timothy Leary in the USA both backed out of suicide in the end and died naturally instead.

It may be a cliché to say that most suicide attempts are a ‘cry for help’, but the evidence seems to bear this out. In one US study, less than four percent of 886 attempted suicides went on to kill themselves. We allow a ‘cooling off period’ in such mundane matters as switching gas suppliers or purchasing insurance, giving us time to really consider our decision. So how long would be an adequate ‘cooling off period’ in deciding whether or not to go on living?

The best test of whether somebody really wants to die is whether they do it themselves. If a loved one asks us to help them commit suicide, isn’t it best to assume that they are not really ready to go?

Read on:

A matter of life and death, by Kevin Yuill

Suffocating hope, by Kevin Yuill

Voluntary euthanasia: a deadbeat solution?, by Kevin Yuill

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