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May 21, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Ready to Die?

While the campaign to legalise voluntary euthanasia has gained traction in recent months, suicide remains a social taboo. Salient chief feature writer Elle Hunt whether individuals should be permitted the freedom to end their lives. 

“If you drink this, you will die,” Professor Sean Davison told his 85-year-old mother Patricia, as he handed her a glass of water in which he had mixed a “good dozen” crushed morphine tablets.

Cancer-ravaged Patricia was “longing to die”, wrote Davison in the manuscript that led to his subsequent arrest. He had no other choice than to give her a choice: “What kind of sane person would keep their mother in a bedroom to rot to death?”

Davison’s frank and compassionate defense of his actions in coverage of his high- profile trial quickly established him as the face of voluntary euthanasia in both New Zealand and his adopted nation of South Africa. Though he has since returned to Cape Town after completing five months’ home detention for assisting his mother’s suicide, the debate he sparked is ongoing.

Labour MP Maryan Street is leading the charge for the law to be changed to reflect an individual’s right to die with her End of Life Choice member’s bill, a result of collaboration with the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Her efforts were validated by a Sunday Star-Times poll earlier this month that found more than 85 per cent of the 1,000-odd respondents were in favour of legalising voluntary euthanasia.

“There is more support out in the community for this than people imagine,” Street told the Nelson Mail.

That Street’s campaign is gaining traction suggests public perceptions of voluntary euthanasia have changed; that human, emotive cases such as Davison’s have gone some way to diminish the stigma of ending the life of a dependent human being for their benefit and at their request. But this societal shift has not extended to the right of an individual to end their own life, prompting the question: how do we decide who has the right to die?

“Research has shown that a substantial majority of people have considered suicide at one time in their lives, and I mean considered it seriously,” wrote psychologist Paul G. Quinnett in Suicide: The Forever Decision.

Though suicide is not considered a criminal matter here as it is in other countries (encouraging or assisting someone to commit suicide, or killing someone in pursuance of a suicide pact, however, falls under the Crimes Act 1961), it is nonetheless a social taboo. That’s not to imply that it is frequent; with 11 deaths occurring on average each week, it is a major public health concern. Around 540 suicides and at least 20,000 attempts occur each year, and even allowing for discrepancies in reporting, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of youth suicide of all 34 countries in the OECD.

Rather, it’s not talked about. The Government has been criticised for its perceived inaction on suicide, with Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education and Research’s (CASPER) calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the matter to be established so far going ignored. “The fact is, there is absolutely no sense of urgency in government about the fact that 558 people are dying a year, 11 a week,” CASPER founder Maria Bradshaw told Fairfax Media in February. “If it was anything else, it would be a national state of emergency.”

Setting aside the question of whether treating suicide as a matter of “national… emergency” would be appropriate or desirable, in truth, New Zealand has had a national suicide prevention strategy in place since 2006. Its seven goals are intended to serve as a framework for suicide prevention efforts over the next decade, and include the promotion of mental health and wellbeing; improving the care of people experiencing mental disorders or who have attempted suicide; and reducing access to means of suicide. According to the Ministry of Health, “its overarching aim is to reduce the rate of suicidal behaviour and its effects on the lives of New Zealanders, while taking into account that suicide affects certain groups more than others.”

But, for certain groups within society, even the existence of a national suicide prevention strategy can be seen as unwelcome interference from the state. The argument goes that in a truly free society, if one has a right to live, one must then also have a right to die, and to do so without obstruction from others. Nietzsche succinctly expressed this viewpoint when he wrote, “There is a certain right by which we may deprive a man of life, but none by which we may deprive him of death.”

Though it is more valid as a philosophical stance than a practicable aspiration, this position is an extension of the traditional liberal or libertarian stance that a person is the rightful owner of his or her body—an argument that has been used to defend both the legalisation of abortion and the abolishment of slavery.

“To hold otherwise—to declare that society must give you permission to kill yourself—is to contradict the right to life at its root,” wrote Thomas A. Bowden of the Ayn Rand Institute for Capitalism magazine. “If you have a duty to go on living, despite your better judgment, then your life does not belong to you, and you exist by permission, not by right.”

American scholar and feminist Carolyn Heilbrun subscribed to the view that suicide was one’s moral right, and acted on this conviction in October 2003, when she was 77. At the time of her death, she was not ill, on medication or depressed; in fact, none of the traditional ‘risk factors’ for suicide were apparent. Therefore, her suicide was understood by her friends and family interviewed by New York magazine to be “an act of will, an idea brought to life. It was something she chose, by herself, for herself.”

“This is a person who was inventive and energetic and gutsy, and that same person at some point decided to stop living,” Judith Resnik, a Yale Law professor, described Heilbrun.

Though there is considerable evidence that Heilburn reached a conscious and deliberate decision, in compos mentis, to end her own life, her death will be incomprehensible to most. Very few psychiatrists will accept that a desire to attempt suicide could be anything but symptomatic of mental illness. For this reason, if a suicide attempt fails and the individual is still believe to pose a risk to his or her self, measures will be put place to prevent them from acting on their impulse.

Those who believe that suicide is a fundamental right will argue that suicide prevention is an example of the state’s coercion of an individual to remain alive against their will, and therefore in violation of the self-ownership that is intrinsic to free society. But this argument highlights the fact that the defense of one’s right to suicide must be kept within a philosophical context.

In reality, suicide prevention is an entirely necessary and moral step. Cases such as Heilbrun’s, where the individual has made a rational decision to take their own life, are by far the minority; depression and alcohol abuse are the two most significant risk factors for suicide, and neither leave someone in a position to make a reasoned judgement about whether it is better to live or die. Moreover, as every one suicide is understood to seriously affect six people, measures such as the New Zealand Government’s own national suicide prevention strategy are of utmost importance.

The right to suicide, then, must be understood to exist as a hypothesis, rather than an aspiration. If it were even possible to diminish the social stigma of suicide, doing so could render less effective measures currently in place to prevent at-risk individuals, such as those suffering from depression or alcohol dependance, from acting on impulse. Nonetheless, moves to legalise another form of elective death—voluntary euthanasia—do raise questions about life, death, and our own freedom as individuals.


About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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