Thursday 5 January 2012

Euthanasia Enthusiasts

Supporters of assisted suicide have published a report which they commissioned (see the BBC story here).

There isn't an official Hafal position on this. Our Trustees, the majority of whom are people with personal experience of mental illness, had a very good discussion on the matter a few months ago and, unsurprisingly, there were varying views.

We can all readily think of both theoretical and actual circumstances where a person seeking assistance to take their own life by reason of pain and misery might be unhelpfully disempowered by the present law which forbids such assistance. But that does not mean that the law should be changed. The numbers of people affected by such circumstances are few - indeed in places where assisted suicide is permitted there are not large numbers making use of it - but there is a vast number of vulnerable people who would be deeply affected by a signal from the government that suicide was officially supported as an option for people who suffer serious illnesses.

Opponents of assisted suicide routinely point to the pressure which might be applied to physically frail people and that is indeed an important consideration. But there is a much greater danger that a change in the law could affect people with a serious mental illness. Hafal's staff and volunteers work tirelessly to reduce suicides among our client group - a difficult task when some 10% of people with schizophrenia or bipolar tragically take their lives - and an important part of our therapeutic approach is to show that there is always a better choice than suicide. That approach will be harder to uphold if, in direct contradiction, the government were to signal that suicide is a fair enough option to the extent that it's okay for other people to help achieve it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing to criminalise suicide (the 1961 Suicide Act decriminalised suicide but also explicitly made it an offence to assist suicide) but that doesn't mean that suicide is "okay". I sincerely believe that a change in the law would result in more suicides by people with a mental illness, not so much because they would avail themselves of assistance (though that could also happen - some "respectable" euthanasia enthusiasts have helped mentally ill people to commit suicide) but because they would see that the government agrees that it is a fair enough option.

There are other sinister aspects to this. I see that drugs advocated for euthanasia in Australia (I'm not going to name them) have been noted by troubled young people there who have then used them to take their own lives - drugs which incidentally are also used to execute people in other parts of the world.

It is also very noticeable that, as much as the argument for euthanasia attracts the sympathy of some decent folk trying to help suffering people, it also attracts a nasty mix of maverick doctors, eugenicists, and macabre death-obsessives - and unfortunately no legislation or procedure will easily distinguish one from the other.

There is a vast risk of terrible if unintended consequences which well-meaning advocates of assisted suicide need to wake up to. I support the BMA and others who understand the issues clearly in resisting the legalisation of assisted suicide.