Suicide and rights talk at cross purposes

Published in the Courier Mail 9 September 2005

Have you ever been at the dinner table when there have been various conversations going on around you? People talking over the top of one another, or around one another, as they continue a conversation with someone several seats away.

It can get quite clamorous and more than a little confusing, as snatches of different conversations get overheard, and people end up talking at cross-purposes.

There are two conversations occurring within society at the moment, and it may do us well to pause and compare notes before we continue.

The first conversation has been given impetus by former New South Wales Liberal leader John Brogden’s recent suicide attempt. We labelled this a tragedy. Fresh attention has been given to the devastating statistics of suicide in this country and we share a sense of mourning for the victims, and their friends and family who are left to carry the burden of grief.

The second conversation is spurred by what is somewhat deceptively called the “Right to Die” movement. This conversation is galvanised by high-profile cases such as Nancy Crick, Terri Schiavo and Maria Korp. Phrases such as “quality of life”, “mercy killing” and “death with dignity” are a significant part of the accompanying vocabulary for the euthanasia movement.

We find then that we are faced with an interesting clash of conversations.

On one hand we are allocating large amounts of resources to suicide prevention, for good reason.
Since 1990, Australian men have been more likely to die by suicide than a motor vehicle accident. For men aged 15-19, suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia. The desire to decrease suicide indicates that we believe life is worth living, that hope can prevail and that the taking of a life in despair is a tragedy.

On the other hand, we are witnessing impassioned debate by advocates of euthanasia who maintain that people should be able to choose when they end their life. Underlying this conversation is the viewpoint that life is only worth living if in good physical or mental shape, that there is no hope, and that the taking of a life is noble.

Euthanasia is not just for terminally ill people. The philosophical and practical extension of the ideological underpinning of euthanasia sees application for those with physical disabilities or other forms of suffering, such as mental illness. This is demonstrated in Holland, where an otherwise physically healthy woman in her early 50s was euthanised. Her illness? Depression.

Pro-euthanasia societies often speak of euthanasia as a choice. However, as with suicide, we see that the decision to end your life is rarely made apart from factors that place immense pressure on the individual.

An unspoken, yet powerful, influence in decisions regarding euthanasia is fear. Whether it is fear of pain, fear of losing physical or mental control, or fear of being a “burden” to family, this fear is powerfully persuasive.

Ending your life is a decision that never had to be made by those who are free from encumbrances. The decision to kill yourself is only ever made by those who are vulnerable — physically, mentally or emotionally.

This psychological climate is eerily similar to the one that affects those who are suicidal. Author Edwin Schniedman, who has studied suicide for nearly 50 years, says: “Nearing the end of my career in suicidology, I think I can now say what has been on my mind in as few as five words: Suicide is caused by “psychache” — the pain of excessively felt shame, or guilt, or humiliation, or loneliness, or fear, or angst, or dread of growing old, or of dying badly, or whatever.”

How can we then say that euthanasia is in essence any different from suicide? Why then do we consider one is beneficial and one is a tragedy?

What then are we to do with the two conversations that society is having? While euthanasia activists maintain they have benevolent motivations, and may do so, we cannot escape from the fact that, all euphemisms aside, they are advocating suicide.

Let’s be honest with ourselves about the nature of this conversation, and stop reframing concepts of suicide into concepts of mercy and dignity.

Only then will we be able to act comprehensively to protect all those who are vulnerable to the pressure to kill themselves.