A Right to Leave the Party

By refusing the sick the basic right to die, we condemn the desperate and demean ourselves, writes John Gooding. This piece came third in the 2012 Honi Soit opinion competition, judged by Joe Hildebrand.

When the 'easy' way out is the only way out, governments should step aside and let families decide. Photo: ninemsn

Tony Nicklinson’s method of death was needlessly cruel. After having a stroke seven years ago and being afflicted with “locked-in syndrome”, whereby his mind was perfectly capable but his body entirely paralysed, Nicklinson was told by British courts he could not legally seek assisted suicide. Stuck in limbo, and having no other means available to him, Nicklinson chose to refuse all food and starve himself to death. He subsequently contracted pneumonia, and died six days after the court decision.

When the ‘easy’ way out is the only way out, governments should step aside and let families decide. Photo: ninemsn

Attempting suicide in isolation is in many countries not a crime, despite the word still retaining a faintly illicit undertone. One can attempt suicide in, say, Australia or the UK and fear no legal repercussions for yourself or your family.

Elsewhere in the world this is not necessarily the case. In the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and North Korea, for example, the act remains illegal and is on occasion punished. The consequences of a nation legally forbidding their people from killing themselves are worth expounding upon. If you do not have a right to kill yourself, you do not really have a right to life either, as you have no choice in the matter. You merely have a duty to live. You are, as it were, stuck in life, mandated by your country to continually exist.

If one is willing to think of people as being property of the state, the criminalisation of suicide does not present any real ideological problem. The Roman Empire in the time of Hadrian expressly forbade soldiers from attempting suicide, and labelled such acts a form of desertion. This is perhaps the most honest characterisation of suicide from the perspective of a semi-fascist state; people literally leaving behind their country. By criminalising suicide, the state is merely protecting their chattel from damage. A completely logical thing to do.

For those with a more libertarian bent, however, suicide being illegal is nothing other than abhorrent. In the fight for human rights worldwide, this one receives almost no attention. Indeed, it would sound quite bizarre to claim to be fighting for people’s right to kill themselves. Nevertheless, whilst it may not exactly be a priority, the principle behind the matter is important to acknowledge, and whether or not a government recognises and protects the right to die reveals how they fundamentally view the people they govern over.

In stark contrast to attempted suicide, assisting someone else to kill themselves is legal in only a handful of nations across the world, and only in very narrow circumstances. Typically, assisted suicide (or euthanasia, as it is sometimes known) is only permitted in these societies when the person in question is suffering a crippling disability or terminal disease, and would be otherwise forced to live out the rest of their natural life in extreme pain, or with a vastly reduced capacity to affect and be affected by the world around them.

Much of the world has over the past few decades become more amenable to the physically disabled. Ramps and elevators allow for vaguely equal access to public buildings and infrastructure, medical interventions such as cochlear implants or speech generating devices allow for more engagement with society, and public attitudes towards the lives of the disabled are slowly changing (take, for instance, the media’s lauding of the Australian Paralympics team following their admirable performance in London this year).

However, in Australia this progress has not been mirrored in terms of disabled people’s right to die. They still technically have this right, but their capability in exercising it is often severely diminished in comparison to the able-bodied. One can, with only a minor furrowing of one’s brow, view the lack of legally assisted suicide an example of discrimination against disabled people, as society is simply not enabling them to exercise their rights to the same degree.

Very few of us would choose to kill ourselves, if we were so inclined, by starving ourselves to death. It is prolonged, it is painful, it is not at all dignified. And yet this is the only option people like Nicklinson have, as the severity of their condition precludes any other method. By refusing Nicklinson the right to die, the courts were essentially condemning him to either spend the rest of his life in limbo, able to view the world but almost entirely unable to interact with it, or to kill himself in extreme agony. This is not the sort of choice a civilised society should thrust upon its people.