Treat suicide as the human tragedy it is

Elderly woman with hands clasped

AS chaplain to a big Melbourne hospital, I often provide comfort and support to those dying and their families. Another part of my ministry in the parish is visiting families in the aftermath of suicide.

The death of a loved one leaves those close to them with a sense of pain and loss, but the agony caused by suicide is different.

“What more could I have done?” and the unanswerable “Why?” haunt those left after such a tragedy. While suicide may seem to a person taking their own life as a way to end their suffering, it does not remove the pain. It just shifts the distress on to others.

The Victorian Government’s Inquiry into End of Life Choices addressed many important questions. Recommendations such as improving education for health professionals and improving access to palliative care, if legislated, will definitely improve outcomes for Victorians approaching the end of life. But recommendation 49 to introduce assisted suicide and euthanasia will transfer the distress to health professionals and to family, as anyone who has experienced a loved one’s suicide knows only too well. It does not remove the suffering.

This year, the Victorian Government has committed $27.5 million to suicide prevention and rightly so. Organisations like Lifeline and beyondblue do extraordinary work reaching out to vulnerable people at risk of taking their own lives. Yet this recommendation to government is an Orwellian contradiction that promotes suicide as a “medical treatment” at the same time.

We should see suicide for the human tragedy it is, rather than seek to confuse it with medical care. Do we not hear in the voice of the person who says “I want to die”, a desperate cry for help? We would be better to respond to the fear, helplessness and despair beneath such requests.

Offering suicide as an option is at best careless and at worst, callous. Dispensing a poison designed to kill the patient is not compassion. Killing is not caring. Introducing physician-assisted suicide would be akin to having guard rails atop one side of the West Gate Bridge and jumping platforms on the other.

What does such a proposal say about us as a community? Conceding to legalise assisted suicide is a capitulation to despair. Surely, we are better than that.

Death is not a “right” any more than gravity is a “right”. It is just a reality that we simply cannot avoid. But extreme and individualistic interpretations that see “death as a right” disregard the rights of the wider community. Assisted suicide is bad public policy because like all suicide, it has consequences for others.

The euthanasia advocate, Professor Julian Savulescu, conceded in his evidence to the Victorian Government inquiry that “no system is foolproof. I am sure there will be cases of coercion; I am sure that will happen”. Are we supposed to accept that innocent people who want to live may have to die for this individualistic misrepresentation of rights?

In 1975, Victoria abolished the death penalty, in part because we know human error can lead to the deaths of innocent people. Introducing this new form of legalised killing would be a backward step.

In this debate, many will cite stories of painful deaths from difficult and complex medical conditions. It is not unreasonable that we fear pain. However the inquiry has seen enough evidence to know that this fear can in many cases be alleviated through better training for health professionals and increased access to the high quality palliative care services that Victoria already has. If we do this, much of the fear and unnecessary suffering that motivates calls for euthanasia and assisted suicide would be addressed.

Of course, as a hospital chaplain I know palliative care is more than palliation and symptom relief. It is also the care expressed by family and friends toward natural death. Even where the best care is available, there will be difficult and complex pain-management cases. We have to do the best we can for people. We have to do the best we can for the community as a whole. Suicide is not the answer.

While the recommendations of the inquiry are an important step, the report is inherently conflicted — advocating for greater care for people at the end of life while at the same time providing a mechanism for people to take their own lives. The report confuses death, indeed suicide, with care.

The lack of statistical evidence in the report is a cause for concern. A solid evidence base must be at the forefront of all government policy decisions. Recommending assisted suicide and euthanasia frameworks without rigorous statistical analysis of jurisdictions where it is already legal renders the report inadequate. As Daniel Mulino pointed out in his minority report, the majority report sidesteps important questions that must be asked — such as the persistent growth in the take-up of assisted suicide where it is legal.

Our government should be making Victoria a place where people want to live — not a place where they come to commit suicide.

 As published in the Herald Sun, Monday 13 June.

Source :
Fr Tony Kerin, Episcopal Vicar for Life, Marriage and Family, Archdiocese of Melbourne