Life Mental Health

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Assisted suicide presents many moral questions

Taboo society: Patricia Casey
Taboo society: Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

Brittany Maynard had never been heard of until about two months ago. Then her name went viral because she said she would kill herself on November 1.

The justification was that she had an inoperable brain tumour and she wished to end her life before her suffering because unbearable. It was diagnosed in January this year and she was reportedly given six months to live.

She and her husband moved from California to Oregon to live so that they could take advantage of the assisted suicide laws in that state, which allow a doctor to prescribe a lethal combination of pills in circumstances where the person is a competent, terminally ill adult. Then she released a video saying that November 1 did not seem right and that she was deferring the date of her death. But she did not defer it and she took the lethal prescription on November 1, surrounded by her husband, family and friends.

Her death appeared loving, easy, dignified and clearly controlled by her. Brittany was a very attractive, young and articulate woman and, aided by the Compassion and Choices Society (formerly the Hemlock Society) she engaged in a campaign to change the law on assisted suicide throughout the US. In a world that sees choice as a right and that is easily captivated by images of gentleness and attractiveness, the story of Brittany's death is compelling. But it is entirely an individualistic one, forgetting the enormous problems associated with assisted suicide.

The basis of the medical profession since its foundation has been one of healing and the known taking of life. Assisting somebody in their death has always been at variance with the calling of a doctor and with the trust between the patient and physician. The British Medical Association has discussed this issue on many occasions and remains opposed to assisting people in dying. Australia's Northern Territory introduced assisted suicide in 1995 but it was rescinded 10 years later.

The issue came before the Supreme Court in Ireland last year and it ruled that individuals did not have a right to die. The judgement drew on various arguments including those relating to the protection of the most vulnerable in our society. But Belgium, which has some of the most liberal laws on assisted suicide, doctors do facilitate the death of not just adults but also children with serious illnesses, including mental illnesses.

Death can be dignified without assisted suicide. Take the case of the very courageous Donal Walsh who also went public when he was terminally ill in 2013. In the last months of his life he displayed personal bravery and selfless concern for others. He was not just focussed on his own fear and suffering but he spoke to and observed a bigger picture. He used his own jest for life that sadly was being snatched from him, to encourage others to value it as he did. His anti-suicide campaign reached millions here and abroad. A young, good looking teenager, dying before his time yet trained on the value of life was a compelling image for those who felt life was futile.

The anti-suicide campaign of Donal and of psychiatrists worldwide has now suffered hugely because of the very public assisted suicide of Brittany. The media seems to be enthralled by her actions and to what is seen as her courage. And any young person reading the coverage will ask what is the moral difference between one person getting lethal medication from a doctor to end their lives because they have cancer and another taking their mothers tablets to end their lives because of depression - both are suffering, both feel helpless and see no hope.

How can any person considering suicide not now be tempted to act on it when it is portrayed in such a positive light and even with an aura of tranquillity about it? The message is now mixed - suicide is acceptable in one set of circumstances and not in another.

The publicity, the idealisation and the images attaching to her suicide are most definitely in breach of reporting guidelines on suicide. Those most at risk of copycat suicides in this instance are likely to be young women as they will identify with her, although the 'Werther effect' as it is also known, is not confined to any single group.

Time will tell if this is true as data on suicide in the wake of Brittany's death are published. Suicide prevention campaigns have taken a blow that will take some considerable time to reverse. Donal Walsh deserves to be remembered for his pluck and love of life. May Donal and Brittany Rest in Peace.


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