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Humanize Suicide Prevention Means Rejecting Suicide Assistance

A friend calls you up to let you know that she’s thinking of ending her life. What do you tell her?

She’s getting older and has experienced a life-threatening (but not terminal) condition for many years. She feels beaten down, alone, and like she’s too great a burden for those who were once closest to her, but who’ve generally stopped visiting in recent years. She’s looking to you for good counsel.

If you’re like most, you wouldn’t respond by affirming her hopelessness. If you’re like most, you wouldn’t respond by enthusiastically affirming her “right to die” or by encouraging her to pursue a means of suicide.

Instead, you would recognize her vulnerability. Instead, you would strive to stand alongside her in solidarity and love. Instead, you would become a better witness to her than you have been, showing her how important she is in your life and in the world. Instead, you would ensure she was afforded every ounce of suicide prevention available. You would do these things because you love her.

Affirmation and solidarity, strangely, are increasingly ridiculed and outright litigated against by “right to die” activists who are more concerned with easier access to suicide than with better treatment and care.

Kirsten Powers diagnosed the problem with “right to die” activism a few years ago when she pointed out that pro-suicide activists “take advantage of human vulnerability” to “obfuscate [the] reality of assisted suicide”. What these activists are doing in states where suicide is now lawful is to “sweep some of society’s most vulnerable—the elderly, the terminally ill and disabled—prematurely into the hereafter.”

Courtney Hempton of the Monash Bioethics Centre offers a case study in pro-suicide activism dressed up as medical ethics in writing on Australia’s embrace of suicide in the form of “voluntary assisted dying”:

Eight months after voluntary assisted dying became an option for the terminally ill in Victoria, three bioethicists have raised concerns about a unique ‘gag clause’ preventing doctors from raising the subject with patients.

Section 8 of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic) prevents a registered health practitioner from initiating discussion about voluntary assisted dying, or suggesting it as a possibility.

Monash PhD candidate Courtney Hempton describes the gag clause as “unwarranted, unprecedented and ethically-problematic”.

Breaching section 8 may result in the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency revoking a health practitioners’ licence for “unprofessional conduct”.

When the Act became law on 19 June, 2019, the Victorian Government described it as the world’s safest and most conservative regime for the terminally ill, with ‘68 safeguards’ designed to protect the rights of vulnerable patients.

Let’s set aside the fact that “terminal” no longer necessarily means “near death” or even “dying” in certain jurisdictions, but can mean simply that a person has a chronic or otherwise unwelcome disability or condition.

Amazing how quickly a common sense patient protection provision comes under attack—Victoria’s “Voluntary Assisted Dying Act of 2017” only came into force this past June. No doubt that this suicide-indifferent Act won passage at least in part precisely because it was seen as “the world’s safest and most conservative” approach to lawful suicide. Now, some eight months later, it is precisely those “safeguards” designed “to protect the rights of vulnerable patients” that will be viciously attacked by those who want physicians to be able to pro-actively recommend suicide to their patients.

As Wesley J. Smith routinely documents, this is how pro-suicide activists operate:

When pitching legalization, they solemnly promise that they have written, oh so “protective guidelines” into the legislation to prevent abuse.

Then, once the law is safely in place, advocates grouse that the guidelines they touted are “obstacles” or “barriers” that unjustly prevent suffering people from accessing assisted suicide. Eventually, political agitation begins to amend the law to make things, shall we say, more flexible. …

The emphasized items, now called “barriers,” were lauded as protections in the campaign to convince voters to legalize assisted suicide.

We can have a culture that either pursues suicide as if it were a positive good or we can have a culture where we strive to prevent suicide because we recognize that it is a threat to public health and human flourishing. Choose your path. Be honest and clear-eyed about what you’re striving for.

We can’t do both at the same time.

Tom Shakely

Research Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Tom Shakely is a Research Fellow with Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism where he focuses on human dignity, human rights, and law and policy. Tom has spoken on human rights issues at the United Nations, testified to the District of Columbia City Council on conscience rights, and advised on testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. House of Representatives.