Suicide as a lifestyle choice

by Paul Russell:

A colourful exchange during ABC TV's panel program Q and A recently on the question of euthanasia and assisted suicide drove home to me the stark reality that what we're really talking about here is a lifestyle choice.

We are well used to hearing the hackneyed sloganing around 'choice' that accompanies any discussion these days on this subject. Why wouldn't we all want 'choice' at the end of life? As far as it goes, choices are a good thing; but they don't come without consequences and nor should our society endorse every individual choice about all manner of things. There anarchy lies!

The very concept of society is about moderating individualism and autonomy to ensure that the rights of all members are endorsed and protected. That naturally contains some elements of restriction upon individual autonomy while acknowledging that such restrictions should always remain at a minimum. That's where the criminal code prohibitions on homicide and assisting in suicide rightly stand.

The Q and A panel included writer and newly-minted euthanasia evangelist, Nikki Gemmell and Professor of Law and Ethics (and euthanasia opponent) Margaret Somerville. Engagement from a senior couple in the audience over euthanasia and assisted suicide set the twitterverse alight when Patricia Fellows called out 'That's bullshit' in response to a point by Somerville.

That exchange was opened by Ron Fellows and directed at Professor Somerville:

"My wife is 81. We have decided that we will not go in to any kind of aged care facility. And if the time comes where we can't take care of ourselves, we will look for some form of euthanasia. We have told our children about our wishes. They have, albeit reluctantly, agreed that that is relatively not effective, but they've agreed to our wishes. But you don't seem to be able to agree and why?"

Somerville replied by observing that what Mr & Mrs Fellows were talking about is what the Dutch have come to call 'completed life'. Holland has been debating changing their laws to accommodate assisted suicide for people who are over the age of 70, who are not necessarily suffering unbearably from any particular ailment but who nevertheless wish to die because of a sense of having completed their lives.

Somerville added an entirely apposite observation that seemed to fall on deaf ears:

"Your death doesn't affects just you. Your death is a social event. It affects your family, it affects your community. And ultimately, if what we're doing in society is changing the law to allow this type of, putting it bluntly, killing, then it is a seismic shift in our values as a society, and it doesn't uphold respect for life at a societal level and you have to have respect for life at two levels - for every individual person and for society in general."

Patricia Fellows reacted strongly to Somerville's use of the word 'killing':

"And right now we're in good health. We do not intend to take our own life until we need to. And it's not about killing anyone. We will be doing it ourselves. I'm not asking Ron to kill me. I will do it myself. And Ron will do it himself. I don't know what you're on about, darling, about killing. That is definitely the wrong word to be using."

Somerville replied by observing that what Fellows was describing was suicide which she observes correctly: "But it is still killing yourself", adding that "How you die does have to do with the community."

It was that last comment that elicited the now widely publicised expletive.

Gemmell responded by congratulating the Fellows for 'compassion and courage' in talking about the issue, reflecting on the sad fact that her own mother committed suicide in response to intractable pain without discussing the matter with her family out of fear of implicating them in her death. She said that her mother died a 'bleak, lonely and desolate death' with no family around. One can easily accept that description.

Gemmell also mentioned that a kindly police officer told her that 'this is an epidemic - elderly people suiciding out of despair and no one is talking about it.' Again, no-one denies that this is a problem - but providing suicide or euthanasia to stop suicide is really no answer at all.

Yet that was the solution proffered by the Victorian Coroner John Olle to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry last year. Olle presented data about violent suicide deaths and suggested that assisted suicide was the answer. Pro-euthanasia public figures seized upon Olle's emotive pleas, as did the Premier, Daniel Andrews, all the while ignoring the fact that not all of those mentioned in Olle's data would have 'benefitted' from the limited regime ultimately put forward by the committee. So, what about them?

And that's the big question here and one that is being totally ignored by those who simply want their own way. It is a question that must be answered by Australia as a society. Why are there so many elderly Australians who look to suicide and what has changed in our society that has brought this about? The remedy must surely be more substantive and more compassionate than simply providing a vial of nembutal! What about those who would never wish to take that option?

Mr & Mrs Fellows are an articulate couple who put their case well. But it is not the whole story. Somerville was right to point out that every death affects society. Certainly, if the Fellows' get their way and euthanasia or assisted suicide were ever legally available in this country if will have an effect on others. Yet, in a strange way, theirs was not really an argument for either but merely for their own 'right' to kill themselves. The law already provides that attempted suicide no longer attracts a criminal penalty; but these people want more - they seem to be seeking some sort of legal endorsement for their choices.

So, what responsibility does our society have for those, like the Fellows, who in their own words don't want to go into an aged care facility and don't want to have to be cared for by others? That's a lifestyle choice, for want of a better term. They have a right to make such choices but they are not without their own consequences. They seemed to have little understanding that any introduction of euthanasia or assisted suicide is not likely to provide them with such a solution. After all, it has taken a long time for the very liberal Dutch society to reach a point where suicides might yet be facilitated by the state for people like the them.

And what do we think other elderly people watching Q and A and hearing the Fellow's put their case will feel about what they heard? The 'sense of being a burden' has already grown strong in our community. Nightly we're told on our television screens just how important it is to purchase funeral plans so as not to be a burden on our loved ones. If this fear of being a burden is strong enough to sell insurance plans isn't it also likely that it may subtly create its own spiral of fear in our elders?

In the documentary The Euthanasia Deception, Dutch academic and euthanasia opponent Henk Reitsema put it this way:

'You open a sense of burden: Before it becomes a legal option, caring for someone who needs care is just the human thing that you do. But once they have the option to 'choose' to let their lives be ended, their not doing so is to choose to burden their next of kin - and that's unfair!'

The question that ultimately sits before us, therefore, is not about whether we allow people like the Fellows to make a lifestyle choice to suicide by changing the law but, rather, whether we have the courage to say NO to such choices and to look to tackle the harder questions about aging and caring in a way that benefits every Australian, not just the few who might want such a pathway.

And so we return to where the conversation began - this is inescapably about society.