Why society should not tolerate suicide

Suicide itself – ‘the right of anyone to take his life’ – is being legitimated by the assisted-suicide campaign.

Kevin Yuill

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Assisted suicide has hit the headlines once again.

Last week, the UK’s director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, issued guidelines for the prosecution of cases of mercy killings. In response to a House of Lords ruling that the Crown Prosecution Service must give guidance on factors involved in the decision to prosecute someone for helping a person to take their own life, Starmer said: ‘The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim.’ Everyone from Gordon Brown donwards has pronounced on the guidelines and their meanings. Yet the sides in the assisted suicide debate remain as intransigent as ever.

What are we to make of the new guidelines and of this new, somewhat mysterious pronouncement from Starmer? The guidelines are important not only for the very few who make the trip to the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland. Despite appearances, this discussion is not really about them. Of the 134 Britons who have made that trip since 2002, none of the relatives accompanying them has been prosecuted. Even where assisted suicide is legal, the number of people who opt for it is very small – in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1997, less than one per cent of the total deaths per year are a result of legal assisted suicide.

But the new guidelines do have an impact on the law, despite Starmer’s protestations to the contrary. Rather than rely on parliament and democratic debate, the guidelines, which have clarified little for prosecutors but have stirred much public debate, further push the case for a change in the law. And they are a danger, not only because they undermine judges and juries in specific cases with sweeping general proclamations, but because they change our perspective on suicide.

How? Starmer’s idea that the focus should be on the motivation of the accused, rather than the situation of the victim, has deep implications. As Saimo Chahal, the lawyer for assisted suicide campaigner Debbie Purdy, who successfully petitioned for clarification in the law, noted: ‘Significantly, the requirement that the victim have a terminal illness, a severe, incurable physical disability or severe degenerative physical condition, as a factor weighing against prosecution has been removed – and rightly so.…The absence of this requirement is clearly consistent with the right of any person to end their life, whether ill, disabled or otherwise.’

Chahal goes too far – but Starmer’s guidelines do indicate how suicide is progressively being legitimated by the assisted suicide campaign. No, this is not a case of the ‘slippery slope’, as hinted at by Gordon Brown and others, concerned that vulnerable people will be encouraged to ‘cease being burdens’ and opt for assisted suicide. Rather, to approve of suicide because of an individual’s assessment that his or her own life is worthless is effectively to approve of all suicides – ‘the right of any person to end their life’, as Chahal put it. And the most honest assisted suicide advocates admit this fact.

The guidelines equate the act of aiding a suicide with the act of preventing one, just so long as the motivation is pure. The motivation for decriminalising suicide in England and Wales in the 1961 Suicide Act, as its authors clearly pointed out, was not toleration of suicide but a desire to be understanding, helpful and sympathetic towards the failed suicide and also the families of successful suicides. The possible 14-year prison sentence for suicide was originally instituted to signal disapproval of the act; it had no practical application, and there has not, to date, been a successful prosecution under the Suicide Act. But now, the taboo against suicide is eroding.

It is the disapproval of suicide – and, more importantly, its concurrent assumption that human life is valuable – which is now threatened. Right now, when we see the proverbial man on the bridge, our attitude towards his suicide is not neutral. Most people would assume that his life is worth living and would try to talk him down. Hearing the story of someone ravaged by terrible physical disability refusing to give up a dream to attend university, we empathise and cheer her on. Shall we become so detached that we will soon equate the decision of the profoundly disabled girl to fight her circumstances and attend university with her suicide, as if the two acts are equally acceptable?

Starmer’s guidelines – permissive at the top and restrictive at the level of individual cases – are the opposite of what is really needed. We need leadership that restates the importance of the value of human life in general, and which, at the same time, takes a sympathetic attitude towards the very few cases where an individual’s continued existence makes little sense. In these situations, a quiet understanding between doctors and family will not be helped by detailed guidelines that demand investigation, nor by attention-seeking confessions of assisting someone in their suicide (see Ray Gosling and the problem with euthanasia, by Brendan O’Neill).

Above all, we should resist seeing suicide as a lifestyle choice that society is obliged to help facilitate. Suicide for all but the noblest reasons is a deeply anti-social act that frustrates a part of us that wants to understand and act and improve on the basis of that understanding. The taboo against suicide is not based on outmoded religious beliefs but on a recognition of suicide’s destruction of possibilities – not just for the suicide himself, but for others too. We should continue to regard suicide as a preventable tragedy rather than a lifestyle choice.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at Ray Gosling and the problem of euthanasia. He also peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. spiked hosted a dignified debate about death. Kevin Yuill thought the ‘clarification’ of the law on assisted suicide would do more harm than good, and attacked the ‘right to die’ movement. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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