In the span of a few weeks, two different but connected stories about suicide were published in the Australian media, highlighting the utter inconsistency of the debate around euthanasia and suicide in this country at the present time.
The first was published by the ABC (“A Dark Place”) about a young man, Lachlan, who took his own life after taking a substance discussed on a pro-suicide website. The website had previously been blocked after coming to the attention of the authorities, but has since re-emerged under a new URL and became accessible once again.
The eSafety Commissioner, Ms Julie Inman Grant criticised the site for “inciting” people towards suicide:
“This is not just a hypothetical harm or potential harm.”
A young Australian man has actually learned how to make a potion on this specific site, and has learned and used it to take his own life.
Now that is preventable.
People who are obviously vulnerable, who could have had the opportunity to get mental health counselling or psychological help .. were encouraged to go into the light and take their life.”
The story is unequivocally critical of the pro-suicide website and the motives of those operating the site, with calls for it to be taken down and blocked in order to prevent further vulnerable people being harmed. The grief of Lachlan’s parents at the death of their only son highlights the devastation of suicide for those left behind.
The second story was published in the Australian newspaper (“‘Not everyone who wants to die is unhinged’: author’s last note”) and details another suicide, that of Australian author Annah Faulkner, who took her own life with support from Exit International, an organisation founded by pro-suicide campaigner Philip Nitschke. Annah was sad, lonely, and grieving the death of her husband seven months earlier.
The tone and the sentiment conveyed in this second story is markedly different.
Annah, like Lachlan, was depressed and wanted to die. She joined the Tasmanian chapter of Exit International, where she was given “comfort and advice” and was supported in her wish to take her own life.
The story quotes Exit’s Tasmanian coordinator Kay Scurr, with whom Annah “quickly became friends”:
“When she first met me she had already put everything in place … she sourced all the equipment,” Scurr says. Knowing that Faulkner had recently lost her husband, and was perfectly healthy, was there a moment when she suggested she give it more time to deal with her sadness? “Never. No. I wasn’t going to patronise her. She was very assertive and very confident … it was her business, her choice.”
When asked for a response to the actions of Exit International, founder of Go Gentle Australia Andrew Denton “distances his group from Nitschke's but doesn’t entirely disavow its views”:
“It’s not where our conversation is at all, although we acknowledge that for some Australians it’s a very important conversation.
“These other conversations will happen naturally as we age as a society and it may well be that future parliaments and future societies decide to go further than Australia has at this point.
“Philip Nitschke isn’t all wrong and VAD laws aren’t all right but there are competing balances.”
The reference to “competing balances” is a nod to the fact that Australians are not yet ready for Philip Nitschke style suicide-on-demand laws. Advocates have focused instead on what has been achievable: passing stricter euthanasia and assisted suicide laws than what they would eventually like but ones that were more likely to get the support of wavering politicians. As Denton explained in evidence to the Western Australian Joint Select Committee on End of Life Choices in 2018 (emphasis added):
“I think there are many older people who do not have what we call a terminal disease who have so many different illnesses and ailments that their life is absolutely miserable. Their life is full of suffering. I deeply understand that. I know in the Netherlands and Belgium that under their law, which is very differently framed to other places, which refers to unbearable or unendurable suffering, that they do allow cases of people with multiple ailments but not necessarily a terminal disease. Personally I think that is a humane thing to do but I think politically in Australia, it is probably not an acceptable thing to do … [Dr Nitschke] would argue that, “But you are just actually not sectioning off a particular group of the community.” In some ways, that is true, but that is because I believe, as I said before, that there is a political reality in this country. We have to write laws that suit our society and that suit our medical profession. So I understand where that desire comes from but it is my belief that it is not a political reality in this country at this time.”
Exit International is now embarking on a three-month Australian tour dedicated to Annah Faulkner, “consisting of a series of four-hour workshops for those aged over 50, the seriously ill, or by special arrangement”.
The different portrayal of the two suicides is very telling. What is on display is a cognitive dissonance that is only going to grow as we navigate the murky path forward opened up by the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Which people should get suicide prevention and which get assisted suicide? Which suicides do we celebrate and which do we lament? Who gets to decide? And on what basis?
Australia’s euthanasia and assisted suicide laws are profoundly changing the nature of our society as we head into the future. Instead of providing care, accompaniment and hope to vulnerable people, we now offer death as a solution to suffering.
Denton’s advocacy has left the door open for the progressive weakening of so-called ‘safeguards,’ potentially leading to a society that will one day accept suicide on demand for every person who chooses it.
What a sad legacy.
If you or someone you know needs assistance phone Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.