Where do I stand on doctor-assisted suicide? Until Friday, I really didn’t know. But on Friday morning, armed with a natty camera, I was dispatched to Woolwich to take photos of an advertisement produced and delivered by my company on behalf of The Economist. It’s a digital billboard playing a long video of a hospital ceiling, followed by the words, ‘Could you live a life like this? Why doctor-assisted suicide should be legal.’
Sitting in the sunshine, snapping away and thinking about my plans for the weekend, I began to wonder how exactly I felt about the message I was photographing. And then it occurred to me: what happens if we take away the word ‘assisted’? How is it that, one day after ‘World Suicide Prevention Day’, the British government was fiercely debating whether suicide is, in fact, okay?
The crucial difference is that assisted suicide is largely reserved for the severely ill or disabled. Suicide is to be prevented, but only if you’re ‘well’.
I’m disabled and have a long history of suicidal thoughts and behaviours; when I’m mentally unwell, assisted suicide strikes me as perfectly rational. Although, wheelchair aside, I’m lucky enough to be active and articulate, I also live with chronic pain, which is one of the major causes of my depression. When I’m mentally well, although I’m still in pain, I don’t want to die. Yet were my physical condition to be significantly worse, there are doctors in the world who, instead of referring me to a psychiatrist for drugs or therapy, might respond to those thoughts of suicide by actually helping me to end my own life.
Let’s get one thing clear: it’s not disability that makes me want to die, it’s depression, which is partly caused by pain. So why, instead of focusing our efforts on relieving that pain, or curing that depression, or solving whatever other issues lead a severely ill or disabled person to thoughts of suicide, does the pro-euthanasia movement leap straight to the morbid conclusion?
According to the able-bodied society in which we live, severe disability one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Pregnant women frequently say they don’t mind how their baby turns out, as long as it’s healthy. The able-bodied regularly turn to the disabled and comment on how brave we are; ‘I couldn’t do it if I were you.’ (Newsflash: disability doesn’t happen only to a select group of people born with an innate ability to deal with it. It happens, and you deal with it however you can.)
The able-bodied, pro-euthanasia world tells itself that a life lived with severe illness or disability is not a life worth living. They’ve recently coined the hashtag-friendly catchphrase ‘right to die’; ‘death is a human right!’ they exclaim. And yes, I’m aware that there are sick and disabled people at the forefront of the pro-euthanasia campaign, but these are the same people who have been let down by clinical inability to alleviate their symptoms and their feelings of hopelessness.
Until my first suicide attempt, none of my doctors had ever suggested that I might need some form of counselling or psychological therapy to help with the impact of my disability. We need to adopt a more holistic approach to illness, managing not only its physical but also its psychological effects. We need better pain relief, better technology, better care. We need to stamp out the idea that some lives are not worth living, and that suicide is sometimes okay.
Earlier this year, battling through my most severe depressive episode to date, I would have jumped at the chance for an easy way out. Were I to be a more significantly disabled person living in a country where assisted suicide was legal, that chance would have been on the cards. The thing is, I got better. Although it might take months or years each time, I always do.