Suicide is perfectly legal in the UK. I can slash my wrists, hang myself or drown myself. I can jump off a high building, cut my throat or stab myself in the heart. If I can get hold of a gun, I can shoot myself; if I were brave enough, I could douse myself in petrol and set myself alight. If I have no concern for the feelings of the driver, I can throw myself under a train.
What I can't do, though, is take a handful of inexpensive pills, along with an anti-emetic so that I don't vomit them up again, and then die a quiet, peaceful death with my wife and daughter at my side; both of them there to comfort me, and then my daughter to comfort my wife.
When you think about it, this is odd. Most methods of suicide are messy and painful, so you wouldn't want anyone around when you attempted them. Even if someone is willing to be with you in your final minutes or hours, they lay themselves open to charges of assisting suicide; which, although suicide itself isn't a crime, means they can go to prison for up to 14 years. In other words, if I want to kill myself, I have to do it in a way that involves being alone, and then leaving my wife to find my body.
Why would I want to kill myself? To a considerable extent, this need concern no-one except me and those closest to me. Most people would agree that life can become intolerable, but who is to judge its intolerability? Something that is lightly born by one may prove a crushing burden to another. Add together several different factors such as personal ill health, poverty and despair at the world in which we live, and this is even more the case. We all react differently to the situations in which we find ourselves.
It is often said, and it is probably true, that knowing you can end your life at the time of your choosing will mean that you can go on enjoying it for a lot longer. As Nietzsche put it, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it, one gets through many a dark night.”
Actually, of course, I can take a handful of inexpensive pills and an anti-emetic, but unfortunately I have to go to Switzerland to do it, and lay out a very great deal of money: something between five and ten thousand pounds. I could probably find the money, just about, but if I'm dead, my wife will need it a lot more than Dignitas. There are plenty who couldn't raise the necessary. I'm not complaining at the price: I'm just complaining that as so often, the rich can afford something basic that the poor cannot. Unless they live in Belgium or one of the few other jurisdictions where physician-assisted suicide is legal.
There seem to be five principal objections to making suicide easier. The first is religious. This may be dismissed more or less easily according to our personal religiosity. The puzzle is why religious considerations should override the wishes of the completely irreligious, or of those who have decided that on the balance of probability that when we die, we cease to exist.
The second is the slippery slope. This is most commonly promoted in terms of either greedy relatives, who want to get their hands on an inheritance, or a Wicked Government that wants to get rid of the old, the poor and the sick as expeditiously as possible. For the former, why would I want to live in the midst of such evil, grasping people? I'd be better off out of it. As for the Wicked Government argument, there is not only the argument against evil, grasping people. There is also the insouciant argument, what of it? If there are not enough people who love me, and whose love, opinion and support is not more important to me than the Wicked Government, and if I do not enjoy life enough to continue to live for my own sake, what great advantage do I derive from being alive instead of dead?
The third, closely related to the previous point, is societal: we can't just have people topping themselves, or society would collapse. At this point we have once again to question our premises. Why would we not wish to live if society offers us such wonderful and varied opportunities? That some of us fail to be impressed by these opportunities is something of an argument that society, and indeed sheer luck, may have failed some of us. If suicide is so awful, why does society need to make it so difficult?
The fourth objection is that death is a very final choice. Well, yes. But is it actually more important than the lesser choices we make throughout out lives? Imprudent marriages; unwise career choices; an unhealthy lifestyle; all have the possibility of imposing months, years or decades of misery. Watching my father die painfully over many months persuaded me that some things may be more important than intelligence, vigour throughout most of one's lifetime, and above all hard work. He joined the Royal Navy at 16 as an Engine Room Artificer Apprentice; rose through the ranks and retired as a Lieutenant Commander; and went on to a second successful career in the oil industry in Aberdeen. He met my mother when he was 15 and she was 14. They were married when he was 21 and she was 20, though she died of cancer a few months after their silver wedding; again, slowly and painfully, over many months. When a few years later he remarried, it was for 37 years. Then he died. Overall his life was very, very good; for the first 80-odd years, anyway. But as he said to me, two or three years before he died at 88, “If I could get hold of a revolver, I'd blow my brains out.”
The fifth argument is that life is always better than death. This is defensible only by extremists who lack the imagination, intelligence or experience to agree that there may indeed come a point to any sane person where life is intolerable. My father was as down to earth and grounded and rational and sane as can readily be imagined. Yet even he, eventually, found life intolerable. I hope that I may be able to end my own life, legally, peacefully and with my wife and daughter beside me, when that day arrives for me. And if my wife dies before I do, well, I hope I may be able to die soon after, legally, peacefully and with the minimum of mess, even if my daughter cannot be beside me.
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Text copyright Roger Hicks 2017