The debate surrounding the legality of assisted suicide shows society’s changing perceptions on the value of life
Last month, right-to-die campaigners and families of the late Tony Nicklinson, suffering from Locked In syndrome, and Paul Lamb, a man left paralysed from the neck down after a car accident, had hoped to appeal to the UK supreme court to make it legal for chronically ill and disabled persons to be helped to die in the UK with the assistance of a doctor. After hearing their appeal, it was rejected by the supreme court on the basis that the issue is one that must be decided by government, and not by the courts. It is currently being discussed in parliament and, if passed, would allow a change in the law that would permit doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to those who are terminally ill and deemed to have less than six months to live.
But, is this debate still relevant? We live in a contemporary, enlightened society, where most imaginable things are now conceivable and if I decide I don’t want to live anymore, I should have the right to do as I like. We are no longer restricted by circumstance or impossibility; autonomy is our most valued possession, and exponential advancement and innovation is what makes us human.
However, the question of assisted suicide makes me wonder where we are heading as a civilisation. Our intuition and intellect is taking us to a world completely under our control, and a place where suffering and pain no longer need to exist. We no longer just survive; we live. Because that’s the way it should be.
But as we career towards this seemingly blissful utopia free from war, disease and hardship, should we not stop to wonder what it is that makes the difference between surviving and living? With every hardship comes ease, whether you understand this as karma or a statement of relativity, it follows that the two are inextricably linked, and there is no good without some bad. Despite human innovation producing more and more incredible advances, we will never rid the world of suffering. The benchmarks may change, but suffering will always be felt.
With the improvement of living standards, eradicating polio and being one-step closer to curing HIV, we still and will always find reasons to feel suffering. As our standards increase, the threshold for what it means to suffer, inevitably, decreases.
Our society may bear the effects of this evolution with changing ideas of what defines a life that is worth living. However much we think we’re autonomous in our decisions and in our opinions, to a varying degree, collective outlooks inevitably mould our own. This link between our surrounding culture and us paves the way for a slippery slope with regards to assisted suicide. Would having the option to die available – to commit suicide in a dedicated clinic under the prescription of a doctor – have an effect on our society’s ability to cope with hardship? Would removing the stigma and taboo from the act of suicide make it an option more readily considered by those searching for a way out? The exclusivity of assisted suicide only to the terminally ill may also be blurred, making it a viable option for any, terminally ill or not, with access to a doctor. Which is exactly the vision of Dignitas founder, Ludwig Minelli; speaking with the Guardian in 2009, he said that “everyone should have the right to end their life, not just the terminally ill, but anyone who wants to” and that he passes no moral judgment on their wishes, stating that he is working in line with the “atheist basis of self-determination”- self-determination being the essence of free will and an expression of having ultimate control over our fate.
Conversely, legalising suicide in this context, removing the stigma and abhorrence from the act, has the capacity to not only legitimise a “black market” practice, but also open the lines of communication for those seeking to end their lives. Potentially resolvable issues may be overcome but, more importantly, if they do decide, death can be sought with dignity with no fear of reproach of loved ones.
Given the status our society has given liberty and self-rule, how much we value individualism and self-reliance, it is difficult to question the morality of helping someone who, with full capacity, has requested to die. But, despite this level of autonomy being so pivotal to our collective psyche, is one so boundless a blessing or a curse?
What is often ignored in this debate, in favour of honouring personal autonomy, almost to no end, is how transforming assisted suicide, terminally ill or not, into a cultural norm will affect wider society. Despite it being tempting to live and let live, death impacts more than the person who dies. It has, and most likely will always be, one of the few frontiers we as humans can never conquer; it can only be accepted.
Death has an insurmountability about it, a level of its own autonomy and finality that gives life its sanctity. As we exist now, in this dynamic, unstable evolution, death is the only certainty we truly have – a humbling element reminding us that we will never have absolute power over our own fate. If life is not valued, what have we left to value? And on whose terms will we decide how much our lives are worth? My personal fear is that life will become quantifiable, with rippling effects on us as a community to regard a less-than-perfect existence as of lesser value.
If there are people who are not terminally ill wanting to die, should this not be considered as a failing on us as a society? That we have failed one of our own, failed to support a fellow human being who has been pushed to the point where they have no way out? Is assisted suicide, an act of absolute self-determination, a solution we’re comfortable to have available to anyone who wants it?
Nietzsche famously said “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” We cannot eradicate suffering, but we can change our standpoint. I, unfortunately, cannot claim to offer any solutions to this tortuous, emotive issue but, perhaps a change of perspective is needed. How much value can we place on a life lived without any suffering?
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