Melanie Phillips has published a blog entry in which she asks what Patrician Hewitt would do if she were walking along Beachy Head and found someone about to jump off – would she help them? What if they were in a wheelchair?
I think it’s clear that there is a difference between someone who is impetuously attempting to commit suicide, and someone who is seeking to end their own life on their own terms and timing to give themselves a good death.
I have some experience with suicide. I was driving across Grafton Bridge, a well known suicide spot in Auckland, when I saw a crowd of people. They were all looking at a young man who was clinging to the other side of the railings. I stopped my car, and walked through the crowd. A woman was keeping everyone away from him (she was doing her best), but I thought the best thing to do would be to talk to him – he seemed awfully lonely standing there with so many people watching him, but all by himself. I introduced myself to him, and asked him why was he standing as he was. He told me that he had had some terrible times, and that he felt desperate, but nobody would help him. I suggested that jumping off the bridge would not solve anything (while it might bring his problems to an end). I also told him of the tragic consequences for those below who he might fall onto or in front of. Just months earlier, I had had that very experience – seeing what I thought was a bundle of laundry falling off the bridge, except a second later, I realised that bundles of laundry don’t have arms and legs – a patient with schizophrenia who had absconded from the hospital leapt to his death, and landed right in front of my car. The young man on the bridge agreed that he didn’t want to die, and as he turned to climb back, the whole crowd of watchers moved forward to help pull him over to safety.
A childhood friend of mine made many attempts at suicide during her teens and early twenties. She has the scars up and down her arms. I remember visiting her in a secure psychiatric facility after one attempt, and her showing me the healing wounds on her arms. She had been having some very difficult times, and she felt very desperate to end the psychic pain she was experiencing.
If the person at the top of Beachy Head is in this situation, then I hope Patricia Hewitt (or Melanie Phillips) would do all they could to reason with, or help get support for the person facing such desperation. And help can be got. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to the young man, but my friend is now in full time employment, in a long-term and stable relationship and is a loving mother to her little daughter.
But there is a different case altogether. I don’t have personal stories about this, but I’ve read of many, and corresponded with a few people. Someone who doesn’t have their whole life ahead of them anymore – someone who will shortly die, or who will lose all their dignity and ability to function in life as they have been doing. If you contemplate a death whereby you will end up choking on your own saliva or where you will slowly lose all control of your body until it succumbs to an infection in the indefinite future is not a death that many of us would relish (if Melanie Phillips disagrees, she is welcome to experience a death of her own choosing). Asking for someone to help you die in a manner, time and place of your own choosing is a liberation for many people. They are taking from fate and empowering themselves. They have a chance to put their affairs in order, say goodbye to their loved ones and slip into a sleep from which they won’t awake. I acknowledge and understand that some frail people might feel pressured to “do the right thing” and there must be strong procedures in place to prevent that, but to deny a good death to someone because you’re comparing their act with that of a mentally unstable desperate person is folly of the highest order.
We are the authors of our own lives. Let us be the authors (if we so choose) of our own deaths. If we need help, it is only right and compassionate that help should be forthcoming. I support Patricia Hewitt’s amendment.