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Spirit of suicide: death as the solution to suffering

By Brett Salkeld

05/11/2016

This is the second of a five-part series.

In the first part of this series we looked at the claim that, “An assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.” We saw that, while the statement is true, it is irrelevant. No kind of killing increases the number of people dying for the simple reason that everybody dies.

But there is another problem with this statement: it imagines death as the solution to suffering. This is a dangerous idea.

People contemplating suicide do not want to die. They can simply see no other way out of their suffering. When we can give them hope that their suffering can be addressed, the desire for suicide disappears.

When comedian Robin Williams took his own life, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a meme of his famed blue genie from Disney’s Aladdin, with Williams being released from lamp captivity with the caption, “Genie, you’re free.” The meme was almost inevitable.

The rapid spread of this meme was followed by the rapid spread of warnings against the meme. Here are a few excerpts from a Washington Post story:

“Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, (says) ‘Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.’

“The starry sky from Disney’s Aladdin, and the written implication that suicide is somehow a liberating option, presents suicide in too celebratory a light, Moutier said.

“Moutier has some advice for organizations and individuals talking about Williams’s death online: Be sure to acknowledge that suicide has underlying issues — and those issues can be addressed.”

Anyone who has ever lost someone to suicide knows why such a meme is almost inevitable. When we lose someone to suicide, we are at a loss to understand the world. We grasp for consolation without thinking about all the implications of our first attempts. We only slowly come to realize that certain ways of talking and thinking — ways that seem so comforting at first — are, in fact, dangerous.

We learn gradually how to balance compassion for the deceased and an unambiguous denunciation of suicide per se. We must honour the pain and suffering of the deceased while avoiding giving the impression that suicide is an option. This is not easy.

It is not easy when it is agreed that suicide is not an option.

But how shall we talk when suicide is an option, at least for some?

When Brittany Maynard, the young American woman with terminal brain cancer who advocated for assisted suicide, moved to Oregon to kill herself with help of the state and medical community not even three months after Robin Williams’ suicide, what could we say?

Could we tell those who are suffering that “suicide has underlying issues — and those issues can be addressed?”

Or do we tell people that Brittany Maynard’s suffering could not be addressed, but theirs could be?

Do we really want to be in the position of telling people which suffering legitimates suicide and which does not? Do we expect our doctors to be able to look a suffering person in the eye and tell that person that their suffering is not enough?

And even if we are comfortable telling those who suffer just how their suffering compares, or doesn’t, with those for whom we advocate a right to suicide, do we have any right to expect them to believe us?

What are we to say to suffering people when a parliamentary committee registers its concern that access to assisted suicide needs to be carefully provided to our northern communities so that their rights are respected while the Attawapiskat First Nation declares a state of emergency due to a rash of suicide and suicide attempts? Does the suffering of this people count? Do we have the chutzpah to tell them it doesn’t?

The logic of suicide is inexorable. And the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced assisted suicide is not encouraging.

Much initial argument for assisted suicide presumes the patient is terminal. We are told, then, that those who oppose it insist on adding a few days or weeks of useless suffering to a life that is basically over. But our Supreme Court recognized that, once the logic of suicide is introduced, being terminal is not necessary. All that is necessary is that the suffering is irremediable. Because what, really, is the difference between pointlessly adding days or weeks of suffering, and adding months or years?

Once the line between letting a person die and killing that person has been effaced, no other safeguards can withstand scrutiny. And so our parliamentary committee tells us that the right must include the mentally ill and, eventually, children.

There is no arguing with their logic. We can’t tell an 18-year-old that their suffering counts, while a 17-year-old needs to just wait it out.

Once death is the solution to suffering we cannot credibly deny that solution to anyone who believes they need it.

Of course, one of the problems with this “solution” is that it is permanent. But how many of us know people who have been suicidal at one point and are glad to be alive today?

Another problem with this solution is that it very easily becomes common sense. We see in Belgium, for example, the rapid rise of assisted deaths with no explicit consent. “Of course this person would want to die. Everyone in this situation wants to die.”

But as we come to the bottom of this slippery slope, we find another danger. Once suicide is a normal, accepted, common-sense end to life (look at the recent dramatic increases in the use of the practice in the Netherlands if you doubt this can happen), another question emerges that cannot be avoided.

Once everyone has the choice to die, that choice must be faced. In a culture that makes death a choice, old age or illness will automatically present the question, “Should I kill myself?” Given the burden that the elderly and the ill often feel they place on their families and on the already overburdened health system, death can come to be seen not merely as a relief or a choice, but as a duty.

This will be our subject in part 3.

Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina where he is responsible for the academic formation of diaconate candidates. He serves the CCCB on the national Roman Catholic - Evangelical Dialogue. Salkeld lives in Wilcox, Sask., with his wife, Flannery, and a growing family (numbers 5 and 6 are due this summer).