If you’ve seen the screen adaptation of P.D. James’ Children of Men, the dystopian film where the birth rate has fallen to virtually nothing, you can’t fail to notice the euthanasia kit advertisements all over the city. The self-esteem of its human inhabitants had ebbed to worthlessness.
But our (and by ‘our’ I mean ‘the global’) birth rate is high. Like John Humphrys and Arthur Koestler, when I die I want a good death by my own hand and at a time of my choosing. I consider it my right to stop existing at any time and for any reason. But if I stop existing because I feel like an unwanted, useless or – worse, burdensome – piece of trash, and if I am typical of those who take their lives, then it’s fair to surmise that my society will have participated in killing me.
Arthur Koestler was a longtime member of the Hemlock Society and former vice president of the voluntary euthanasia charity EXIT (which changed its name to the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and then to Dignity in Dying). He was terminally ill when he killed himself. He took a cocktail of drugs, died efficiently and tidily in his chair, and was found on March 3rd 1983.
But he took somebody with him – his healthy wife, Cynthia. His biographer David Cesarani is carefully speculative, but Arthur Koestler had bullied, harangued and demeaned her all their married life. Her self-esteem was low. There are many reasons to suppose that she felt pressured into a suicide pact. Arthur Koestler was a shit and at the same time he brimmed with humanity. We will never know why Cynthia died.
Arthur Koestler was very sensitive about the people a suicide bereaves. In his work for Exit, he created guidelines on what to leave behind to smooth the aftermath of such a death, of what to tell loved ones and of how to fix affairs.
Here’s an overview of the law from Dignity in Dying:
- Assisting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment in England and Wales
- Section 2 (1) of the 1961 Suicide Act states: A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years
- Section 2 (4) of the 1961 Suicide Act states: No proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under this section except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions
- To date no one who has accompanied a loved one to Dignitas has been prosecuted. However, people have been questioned by the Police and threatened with prosecution.
In The Observer John Humphrys writes that over the past few years more than a hundred people have made the journey to Dignitas, the assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, to end their lives. On their return, none of the loved ones who helped them has been prosecuted. And yet Parliament has still to decriminalise assisted suicide. He writes:
“Those who defend the status quo are afraid that once we allow any form of euthanasia or assisted suicide we are launched on a slippery slope. Before you know it, doctors will be knocking off every elderly patient who worries about becoming a burden on their family and destroying the sacred bond between doctor and patient into the bargain. The evidence suggests otherwise. In the Netherlands, which has the most liberal legislation in Europe, the number of people asking their doctors to help them die has been falling steadily, from 3,800 in 2001 to 2,120 in 2007. If the law is changed in this country, it will be along the lines of the legislation in Oregon and Washington State where the safeguards are stronger. In the first 10 years since the Oregon law was passed, 341 people were helped to die – fewer than 2% of all deaths.”
So I was as satisfied as alarmed to read in The Observer today that an Australian doctor Philip Nitschke has made barbituate-testing kits available which allow people to ascertain that the drugs they have obtained can be relied on to kill them peacefully. It relieved the feeling of entrapment I have always felt about my own life*.
I just wish the kit hadn’t been launched in the middle of the worst economic situation the world has ever seen. And naturally, when he comes to the UK in May, it will again be Eastbourne where he promotes his organisation (Exit International) and its DIY suicide video. As well as being the most likely demographic to experience terminal illness or life-destroying debilitation, older people, for which Eastbourne is renowned, are the most likely demographic to experience social isolation and great loneliness. In order to support the right to die, we absolutely must address the latter. Dutiful ministrations can’t be as good as it gets – I for one will hose the do-gooders out of my house if they come calling when I’m old. We all value affinity and variety. Maybe there’s a way for people like me (those who chafe against their social duties in this respect of providing company – as if good company were something you could deliver or muster on demand) to help address the social isolation of older people – and (incidentally) make our own beds while we’re at it.
This is what it boils down to, for me. The right to die requires an ongoing campaign to irradicate the circumstances under which individual self-esteem can ebb to nothing.
*No, I don’t have suicidal thoughts. No, I’m not planning on dying until I’m terminally or chronically ill (or incarcerated for life, or knocked down in traffic as happened the other week – a motorbike slammed on its brakes and bumped me lightly enough for me to say sorry and hurry away – or at the hands of a young knife-wielding bandit, or in a fight with a player of music without headphones). It’s just that I tend to think far ahead and when my time comes I want the right to die in peace.