Comment: Are We Toying With Fate When Considering The Issue of Assisted Dying?

In September this year [2015], British MP’s voted 330 to 118 against changing the law in the first Commons vote on assisted dying for 20 years. Currently illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act, assisting the death of a person in any capacity is a crime carrying severe penalties.

As we begin to discuss the issue on social platforms, the controversial decision has been met with mixed public reaction. The debate is further complicated by the consideration of legalised euthanasia for those suffering from long-term mental illness as opposed to terminal physical conditions.

Undoubtedly, death and mourning, once an accepted ritual whereby loved ones would surround the dying throughout the course of their passing, has become a morbid process which intensely fear, hide from and persist in shortening. We shield it from our children, from ourselves, and have assigned it to an awkward societal taboo.

So the very fact that we are now discussing the legalities of actively ending life under certain circumstances is quite significant in itself. At present, active euthanasia is legal only in Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the US states of Washington and Oregon.

Needless to say, people are uncomfortable discussing death, the death penalty and abortion debates being two such examples. Yet it is the uncomfortable issues that need the most discussion. Aside from the clear opposition from those in the religious sector, the real cause for debate is: Where do we draw the line?

A rising number of the population are backing the idea of allowing those with serious, terminal illnesses such as cancer and motor neurone disease (MND) to end their lives legally, painlessly and with dignity. In March 2015, a Populus poll of over 5,000 UK citizens showed that 82% supported a change in the law.

We wouldn’t hesitate to end the pain of a fatally injured animal, so why not a human being? It seems only to be a shortening of the inevitable and can provide the dying with the opportunity to pass away peacefully beside their loved ones as opposed to slow, painful alternatives.

What, then, of sufferers of long-term mental illness? It’s only in the last decade or so that mental health problems have begun to be validated as being just as real and destructive as physical disease. Because the trauma occurs internally, society regularly ignores or even minimises the devastation that illnesses such as depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia cause.

By supporting assisted dying only for those with severe physical conditions, do we not undermine the severity of mental illness and reinforce the idea that it comes second to physical pain? Or would providing this option for those with such illnesses be ‘a step too far’?

Laura-Anne Heath, 21, from Belfast thinks so: “I don’t agree with legalising assisted dying for mental health problems such as depression.

“Things can always get better, no matter how dark they seem, and it would prevent any chance of recovery for the individual.”

Maybe so. In this context, legalising assisted dying eliminates hope, the most basic of human necessities.

But at what point do we acknowledge the dark truth of mental illness, that, for some, there may be no tangible hope of living free from mental torture? Just like a sufferer of terminal cancer, each day will remain a painful struggle.

Disorders like bi-polar, schizophrenia and even clinical depression are often life-long conditions. Some may learn to manage their illness, of course, but to take away the right to choose whether that is a life they wish to endure is another cruelty entirely.

Many of us have seen first hand the devastation that mental illness can cause, and as someone who suffers from such, I certainly would like to have the choice available to me should the circumstances require.

Call it morbid, call it pessimistic. But that’s what it’s really about: Choice. And while rigorous assessment should certainly always be a requirement prior to any decision to end life, as Arthur Schopenhauer rightly stated: “There is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person”.

About the Author

Abby Williams
Belfast based author/writer specialising in entertainment, mental health and human interest.