Aug 232011

A Demos report “The Truth About Suicide” (by Louise Bazalgette, William Bradley, and Jenny Ousbey) has hit the headlines. It suggests that at least 10% of suicides are by people with chronic or terminal illnesses. Let us hope that an important message is finally heard and understood:

Sometimes suicide is a rational and sensible way of handling an illness or disability, and support or assistance rather than prevention is sometimes the best response.

(Disclaimer: I am a paid-up member of “Dignity in Dying“, which lobbies for a change in the law on assisted dying. I want the change to the law to go further, because my father died of Alzheimer’s, but their proposal would be a useful first step.)

Suicide policy

Reminder: suicide has been legal in the UK for about 50 years. (Longer in Scotland). But assisted suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

The Government has published a draft suicide prevention strategy for England, which is now open for consultation. It appears to ignore the possibility that, in some circumstances, suicide is a sensible act.

The Demos report provides “Conclusions and recommendations”, but these are primarily to do with improving knowledge about how many suicides take place, rather than trying to understand whether it is always something to be prevented.

Many, probably most, suicides could be prevented with the eventual gratitude of those concerned. Many attempts are reactions to temporary conditions, or exaggerated reactions to conditions which could eventually be tolerated. But not all.

Some suicides are the results of informed decisions by the only people with the information needed about their current, and their threshold requirement for, quality of life. The Suicide Act 1961 partly answered the famous question “whose life is it anyway?”; it answered “it belongs to the person living it (but with qualifications)”. Now is the time to re-think those qualifications.

Assisted dying / assisted suicide

The fact that assisted suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison has weird and unacceptable consequences:

  • (Wikipedia): an accessory can incur liability when the principal does not commit a criminal offence; and if an individual incapable of committing suicide for him or herself enlists the aid of an outside party in performing the act, that party may be charged with conspiracy;
  • this is a unique case where it is a crime to help a disabled person achieve what an able person could legally achieve without assistance.

Anomalies like those should always be viewed with suspicion; they suggest that a compromise that no-one actually wanted was the least worst option available. The attitude of the population of the UK has matured over the last 50 years, and many now openly discuss this topic that was once taboo. It can be presented on main TV channels.

Where online news media permit discussion following an article on this topic, typically a substantial number of responses are of the form “mind your own business, and stop interfering with my life (and death) and my decisions“.

People increasingly want control over their end-of-life.

Some advantages of the legalisation of assisted dying / assisted suicide
  • Some people will be able to avoid intolerable loss of quality of life and/or pain. (Intolerable according to the only people qualified to judge: themselves).
  • Many people will have “peace of mind”, knowing that they have the option available to them, even if (as is typically the case) they may never use it. This is one of the arguments of the heroic Debbie Purdy. (Diane Pretty made similar arguments).
  • Some will will be able to live longer, knowing that instead of having to commit suicide (perhaps in the UK, perhaps at Dignitas) while they can do so unaided, they can afford to wait beyond the time when they will need assistance. (And, of course, they may never take up the option).
  • Instead of people committing suicide elsewhere, only for friends and relatives who travel with them to be investigated after they return, the whole process will be under UK law, and any investigation will take place before anyone dies.
  • There is clearly already a trickle of hidden suicides, probably including a high proportion of assisted suicides, which could be brought into the open and under control.
  • Suicide carries risk of collateral damage. (Jumping off a building onto someone; giving a train driver nightmares for the rest of their life; turning yourself into a vegetable to be catered for for years; etc). With assistance, it will be done properly.
Some myths to be dispelled
  • There will be a rush of suicides“. That doesn’t happen in other places that allow assisted suicide, so why would it happen here?
  • Appropriate safeguards cannot be devised“. Don’t be silly! Some other nations manage. Is the collective intelligence of the UK that small?
  • This will be a slippery slope to … (name your horror)“. A “slippery slope” implies that someone is moving in an unwanted direction out of control. This topic is viewed with so much conservatism, that it will probably progress too slowly in wanted directions, and there will be so much analysis and consultation that it will not be out of control.
  • This devalues life / this devalues the life of a disabled person“. Some disabled people (contrary to disabled people like Debbie Purdy and Dianne Pretty) imply that they need an unambiguous law that all life is valuable, as a safeguard. No! What they need is a clear statement about who is the final arbiter of the value of their life: themselves! If they don’t say “I want assistance to die”, it can be deduced that they value their lives highly. It is for them to determine the value of their lives, not the state.


The current law on assisted suicide is irrational and opposed by most people in the UK. (A recent survey revealed that over 80% of people wanted a change to the law; that included over 70% of religious people, as well as over 90% of non-religious people).

The current law is discriminatory (for example, towards disabled people) and cruel, but MPs, doctors, and religious organisations, are typically (not always) opposed to a change in the law. However, those people are not representative.

It is time for change.

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