Monday 13 June 2011

Courage and suicide

Following on from last month's post, I found myself thinking further about euthanasia, and particularly about the current admiration for people who 'have the courage to' commit assisted suicide rather than endure prolonged suffering. And whilst I have great sympathy for people who are terminally ill or terribly disabled or dreadfully disfigured, I do feel that courage is the wrong term for this response to such difficulties. I have a friend who has suffered from Motor Neurone Disease (MND) for more than five years, and still holds down a full-time job as a consultant even though he can't speak clearly or even feed himself, such is the nature of the disease's progress. He never complains, and simply fights the battle every day to continue living. He is a husband and father of six children, the youngest of whom is a teenager, and beloved by all his family, who perform miracles to keep him functioning. To me, this is true courage - not to give in to a disability and either moan about it or, worse still, decide that life isn't worth living and therefore anything is better than continuing to do so, but to get up each morning - with whatever help is required - and do as much of your work as you are able. His family have made it clear to any medical practitioner that he is to be resuscitated if his breathing stops, and that they will not see it as a merciful release if he is allowed to die.

There should, I feel, be a better balance in the media, to take account of breathtaking courage like this, rather than focusing on, and lauding, the more negative responses that lead to assisted suicide. This is not the same as suggesting that people should be prosecuted for assisting a suicide, or calling for a return to the unenlightened times when suicide was a crime and if you failed in a suicide attempt you could be prosecuted. Suicide is often an unpremeditated and impulsive response to life challenges that have overwhelmed the person in question. But the response of the rest of us must surely be to encourage people to take a positive view of life, and to give them whatever help they require to rise above the difficulties and suffering - is this not part of what makes us human?

Think of the alternative for a moment. Just suppose that every human being responded to adversity (I mean, for the sake of argument, true adversity, not just the little ups and downs that we all have to deal with in everyday life but serious disability, terminal or agonising illness, etc.) by deciding to commit suicide, whether directly or with assistance. How would this culture of death benefit us? Would it inspire great deeds of compassion and altruism, or campaigns to better the lot of humanity, to serve the poor and to combat evil? Would we as a species long survive with such a culture, if it became widespread and all-encompassing? To embrace it will not in the end lead us into life-enhancing philosophies and actions, but into resignation, apathy, and an unwillingness to help others except in their efforts to die. It is a descent into darkness that I for one am determined to resist.

Although there are certainly degrees of suffering and difficulty, and for some people the degree they are subjected to seems beyond anyone's ability to cope, yet for every man or woman who gives up the struggle, there will be others, like my MND-sufferer friend, who will bloody-mindedly grit their teeth and fight on. Which should we admire and emulate? Which will bring us a stronger, more positive society where people care for each other. That is the question we must answer.