Getting others’ hands dirty

Last week, there was an inquest into the suicide of a young woman, Kerrie Wooltorton, who drank poison and called an ambulance, supposedly because she did not want to die alone. The 26-year-old had been suffering from depression because of infertility, and hours earlier had written a “living will” stating her intentions. The coroner recorded a narrative verdict (i.e. not a standard verdict such as suicide, misadventure, unlawful killing etc) which did not blame the hospital. The hospital’s consultant renal physician said:

I would have been breaking the law and I wasn’t worried about her suing me, but I think she would have asked, ‘What do I have to do to tell you what my wishes are?’ … It’s a horrible thing to have to do but I felt I had no alternative but to go with her wishes. Nobody wants to let a young lady die.

There is a substantial pro-euthanasia movement in the UK, which has been gathering strength for some twenty years or more. Since various countries and some US states have legalised it, there has been a steady stream of Brits going to the places where assisted suicide is legal, notably Switzerland, to drink poison. There are two alarming aspects to this trend.

One is that the afflictions which give rise to these kinds of events are often much less than terminal, degenerative illnesses like motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. Last year, the highest-profile victim was Daniel James, who had suffered a spinal cord injury in a rugby scrum and become quadriplegic. This time, it’s a woman who couldn’t have children. She was only 26. The former is not a trivial matter by anyone’s standards, but for most people who experience it, it doesn’t lead them to commit suicide, even if they incurred their injury in much more traumatic circumstances than a game of rugby. And surely he had heard of people suffering spinal cord injuries in scrums. I have, and I don’t even play or follow rugby.

The second is that these people have to involve others in their deaths. Someone else has to get their hands dirty. That’s not new in itself; people have been throwing themselves in front of trains for almost as long as there have been trains, but here it involves a much deeper level of personal involvement. The depraved infertile woman (thinking about it, it’s probably fortunate that she couldn’t have children) called out an ambulance to be taken to a hospital, both staffed by people who spend all their time treating sick people and saving lives, only to thrust a bit of paper into their faces and demand that they watch her die. The loser Daniel James expected his parents to accompany him to Switzerland and then to risk prosecution and imprisonment on return, with the risk that his siblings could be without their parents for several months or years if such a thing happened. They are not content to just kill themselves; they want to cause distress and pain to innocent people in the process.

There are two major problems with this present culture in which death is held to be a solution to suffering. The first is the perception that it’s all about the individual. I saw a comment posted on a blog post written by Tiffiny Carlson, a quadriplegic with a higher (i.e. more disabling) injury than Daniel James had, by a woman who said that she felt more upset when someone had a spinal cord injury than when they died. But if the victim was a young widowed mother of a small child, would you be more sad for the already bereaved son or daughter to have a paralysed mother than be an orphan? Even if the deceased is a young man with no dependants, it still leaves a family and a circle of friends without a loved one.

The other is that the notion of death as a solution, as a ‘release’ from suffering, is predicated on the assumption that there is either nothing after death, or a peaceful moving-on to another earthly existence, or something else based largely on wishful thinking. It is assumed that there is certainly no judgement and no accounting for what one does, and even the idea that what one can do in this life, whether on one’s feet or in a wheelchair, or even a bed, might contribute to a better afterlife is disregarded. You would not normally fail to look before you stepped out into a busy road, because you would fear getting run over and severely injured or killed; why would you jump into the complete unknown, based on fancies about what was there?

It seems that we have reached the point where many of us regard life and death as some sort of rational choice to be made, and that patience and endurance are no longer required of us. In the past, suicide was not seen as an option but as a selfish, cowardly and shameful act; today, there are some who regard it as a right, an option which should be facilitated, and in such a climate, it is inevitable that some might take it up who would not have done in the past. Finally, people are being indulged in their desires to kill themselves when often they need time to adjust to their new situation, or counselling. This blogger, who also became paralysed at a young age, writes that he could have fallen victim to the same “perverse form of compassion” as Daniel James had his parents not shown him the tough love that they did. He was expected to make what he could of life rather than give in, and is now grateful for it. I suspect that Daniel James’s parents were not prosecuted because the political cost would have been too high, but certainly nobody should be making excuses for, much less applauding, anyone who takes part in such an act.

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