By Paul Russell, Director, HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide.
There's a subtle hypocrisy in our society in regards to suicide that also plays out in cases of wrongful death and euthanasia & assisted suicide arguments.
If a young person tragically dies by suicide we are rightly upset. We feel immense compassion for the young person and for their grieving families. It is entirely natural to observe that part of the tragedy is that he or she had 'their whole lives ahead of them'. And so, in our western society where youth suicide is tragically far too common, we invest significant time, effort and finances in suicide prevention - and rightly so.
But when our media reports a suicide of an older person, they and we often see it differently. Often, but not always, the story talks about someone who has had a wonderful life and simply wants to be gone. Reasons vary from the fear of deterioration or a difficult prognosis to simply not wanting to grow old. Wrapped up like a sugar-coated yet bitter pill, we're encouraged to consider that such a suicide is understandable, perhaps even okay. It is not. We are encouraged to celebrate his or her 'courage to choose' without thought for the reality that to make such a suggestion at the suicide death of a young person would be deemed rightly as cruel and invariably wrong.
I cannot help but think that the easy acceptance of suicide amongst the elderly is somehow subtly tied up in our own fears about what we will face ourselves. The lack of suicide prevention campaigns aimed at our elders tends to support this thinking and the idea of euthanasia and assisted suicide as being for the aged and infirmed further compromises suicide prevention initiatives.
While it is again entirely natural to feel compassion for the older person's circumstances we cannot apply the 'whole life ahead of them' commentary because it is less of a reality. That said person may yet have had many years to live is less clear than for our putative young person. Does the fact that we cannot find easily a point of reflection upon what is nevertheless a tragedy mean that we should not be just as concerned as we are at a younger person's suicide? Should it mean that we fail to ask the hard and sometimes unanswerable questions?
Should it mean that we should simply wrap the whole story up in a nice neat bow of: 'Oh! Well...' and move on? How many of our elderly feel this kind of pressure and for how many are these feelings exacerbated by poor care, loneliness or bereavement? Are the pressing concerns that drove them to suicide any less real to them than for the young person?
We can and should want to say to the depressed teenager that there are other solutions and we should say the same to the elderly person.
So, why are we not expending just as much effort is suicide prevention for the elderly as we do for the young?
Last year, following an ABC interview about the death of Perth man Nigel Brayley using an Exit suicide method, Exit supremo, Philip Nitschke seemed to want to 'rationalise' Brayley's death away because of an investigation possibly implicating him (Brayley) in the deaths of his two wives. Then we had the on-again, off-again proposed euthanasia death in Belgium of a murder-rapist which seemed ultimately to have been put off due to the negative publicity linking the euthanasia death, rightly or wrongly, to something like the re-introduction of a death penalty.
Thoughts about these cases will have naturally included an assessment of the (possible) wrongdoing. Some would conclude that their deaths would mean these men avoided the consequences of their crimes; others might add a note of good riddance. But at the heart of both stories were deeply troubled individuals who needed help and not encouragement towards their death, regardless of what they may have done.
In all of this we can too easily adopt the subtle position that attributes more value to some lives and, therefore less value to others.
Take for example a court case reported today in the Sydney Press of a nurse on trial for manslaughter in the wrongful death of a patient through what the prosecution claims is 'gross criminal negligence'. Her defence, as the article headline points out, seems to be proposing that the deceased woman was 'at death's door' as if to say that the death was of less consequence than it might have been for someone else. Some of the evidence will consider whether or not the patient was indeed dying, but to allow this to diminish the actions of the nurse, which are not in dispute, would be to diminish the value of the life of the patient. Sentencing is another matter where appropriate mercy may temper justice, but to reduce the charge on such a basis would be to diminish the worth of a life. The trial continues. I am sceptical about the outcome.
It is this morphing of the equal and absolute value of every human life into something entirely subjective, based on how we feel about the sick, the elderly, and the disabled and our fears about the possibility of joining their ranks, that is itself on trial in the euthanasia & assisted suicide debate.
Yes, the context of each individual's story is important and just so the ultimate choices they make. But even though the public face of the various euthanasia campaigns is most often about individuals in difficult circumstances, changing the law is not about them; it's about us - all of us.
To make a change to the law can be about 'the one' when the change is about offering better protection for everyone based upon the one tragic example.
But euthanasia law is not like that; it attempts to extrapolate the circumstances of 'the one' persons choice - an entirely individual and totally subjective matter - and tries to foist it upon everyone.
"But it's voluntary euthanasia! No-one will be forced into it," we hear repeatedly. This misses the point entirely: in a world where we already struggle with the concept of the equal and inalienable value of each and every human life we cannot expect a positive law allowing for exceptions to the criminal code (that enshrines, incidentally, the equal protection of life) to do anything else but continue to erode already weakened standards.
If this article causes you any difficulty at all, talk to someone. Help is at hand.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636