Assisted Suicide and the End of Love
Terry Pratchett’s recent documentary Choosing to Die is rightly controversial. When such a prolific writer as Pratchett, suffering from Alzheimer’s, makes a television programme of such emotional intensity as this one, on such a delicate topic as suicide, it is difficult to know exactly how to respond. Having watched most of the documentary (I have no interest in seeing films of people dying for whatever reason), I also find it difficult to write on this subject without reference to my faith as a Christian.
This is a faith that necessarily encompasses beliefs about the unalterable and incalculably high value of human life, one that is not lived in isolation from God or men but forms one, unique part of the created world. Unlike life, human suffering is not incalculably high or unalterable. We have a right to life but it is madness to proclaim a right to ‘freedom from pain’ or a right to death. We must of course care for those in pain, relieving them whenever possible, and I should never question this. No suffering, however, can meaningfully be said to diminish the value of a person’s life qua life to such a degree that it would be better for him or her deliberately to bring it to an end.
Such beliefs are by no means uniquely Christian, and are indeed much more widely held, but there are clearly among us in our society people who do not share such a view about human life and instead wish to place greater emphasis on individual autonomy and free choice at the expense of human life. Terry Pratchett likens two of his interviewees to each other, one who dies at the Dignitas clinic and another who has decided to live until the end of his natural life, simply because they have both made free choices. One of them, sadly, is no longer with us while the other, wheelchair-bound and suffering from motor-neurone disease is bravely fighting on. However, while it would be true to say that a faithful husband and an adulterer were alike in having made their own choices, this would not really tell us very much.
The contradiction in Terry Pratchett’s comparison is made clear by, of all people, John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. Mill writes that, by selling himself into slavery a man ‘defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself’. The same may be applied to suicide. To say that a man should be allowed to kill himself in the name of self-determination is like asserting that he should, in the name of freedom, be allowed to give up his freedom and bring an end to what freedom he had hitherto possessed. Those, moreover, who suggest it is possible to help someone die out of love are participating in an action that necessarily undermines and ends their relationship. This is not ending a relationship that is problematic or harmful so that both parties can go on to live otherwise fulfilled and happy lives. It is the ending of any possibility of relationship with anyone. A necessary part of assisted suicide is that it deliberately ends relationships and precludes any possibility of greater love outside of those relationships.
It has, strangely, been declared that those of us who oppose assisted suicide are in favour of suffering. This is quite plainly wrong. We are, in fact, most strongly in favour of that most wonderful thing, love. In fighting on one can preserve love. In choosing to die one deliberately frustrates this.
Nonetheless, it is clear that some people try to kill themselves for all sorts of reasons, and it is a matter of the greatest delicacy to determine how we should treat or console those who are unsuccessful in so doing. Sending someone suffering from schizophrenia to prison for failing in a suicide attempt is hardly the most effective or understanding response to his or her desire for death. Accepting that, however, does not mean we are obliged to judge suicide morally acceptable or right. If we value human life and freedom it is, clearly, morally wrong to end one’s own life and the law also ought, in an appropriate and sensitive manner, to reflect this.