A pod allowing people to gas themselves to death could soon be available in Switzerland. The contraption, designed by Philip Nitschke, an Australian inventor aptly referred to as ‘Dr Death’, works by releasing nitrogen into a confined space, rapidly reducing oxygen levels. The occupant loses consciousness and suffocates in roughly ten minutes. Welcome to the brave new world of 21st century Europe.
It has been interesting reading commentary on this story. The dystopian contraption is referred to disparagingly as a ‘suicide pod’, a ‘suicide capsule’ and a ‘suicide machine’ by news outlets. And in a rare departure for our polarised political climate, it has been almost universally condemned. Both conservative and progressive commentators have slammed it for ‘glamourising’ suicide.
I agree with this criticism. However, there’s an irony here that bears pointing out. Some of the commentators slamming Nitschke’s suicide device as unethical and unwelcome are also loud proponents of assisted suicide. The same people criticising the suicide-assisting machine support legislation to bring about suicide-assisting doctors. It doesn’t make any sense, logically speaking.
How can you condemn a mechanical contraption that allows suffering people to take their lives by inhaling gas whilst simultaneously praising a legislative contraption that allows suffering people take their lives by ingesting lethal drugs? Both have the same function. You have to do some severe intellectual contortions to attack one and laud the other.
The way people justify this position is by denying that the latter process – assisted suicide – involves suicide at all. It’s ‘assisted dying’, or ‘choice at the end of life’, or as one proponent bizarrely put it, ‘shortening death’. In reality, it is about suicide. It involves a person ingesting a substance that will result in their death. There’s no other word for that, or at least there hasn’t been throughout history.
The suicide pod episode is instructive. It cuts through all the misleading rhetoric and reminds us of the central question posed by ‘assisted dying’ legislation: ‘Is suicide something we should condone and facilitate, or is it something we should decry and prevent?’ Unlike intellectually dishonest commentators, society cannot adopt both ideological positions at the same time.
A friend of mine, professor of bioethics Dr David A. Jones, explains why. Legalising assisted suicide, he says, creates “a pernicious exception to a society’s commitment to suicide prevention. If someone who is young and healthy expresses a wish to die they are, or ought to be, helped to live. Whereas if someone fulfils the criteria for assisted suicide then they may no longer be given that care. They may instead be encouraged and assisted to take their own lives.”
When assisted suicide is provided for, the overarching rule about suicide is damaged, irreparably. You can no longer send a consistent message that suicide is a tragedy that must always be grieved and discouraged. Because for some people, in certain circumstances, it has become a ‘right’, which must be viewed positively. As David further notes, the suicide rate in wider society rises as a result. People think ‘why shouldn’t I take my life when that person, suffering in that way, can take theirs?’
There are many reasons not to go down the path of assisted suicide and some of these have been cited in political debates this year. There is the threat of coercion and abuse – a failure of so-called safeguards. There is the prospect of incremental extension making people with disabilities and mental health problems eligible for assisted suicide, with all the resultant implications for equality. And there is the threat of palliative care being undermined.
However, the core dilemma at the heart of the debate is this: if we go down this path of ‘assisted dying’, we make suicide acceptable. Once we open the door to it, our approach to suicide will never be the same again. This, for me, is reason enough to say ‘no’, every time.