Editorial - All suicides matter – connecting the dots

In early August the Health Select Committee Report into Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia was presented to Parliament. The Report is timely given that David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill was drawn from the Private Members ballot in May. It also comes hot on the heels of the Ministry of Health’s consultation on a revised “Strategy to Prevent Suicide in New Zealand.”

Most of us will have been touched at some time by the suicide of a young person and, to quote the Director of Mental Health, Dr John Crawshaw, know only too well the “devastating ripple effect across communities.” These suicides are a tragedy and we rightly do all we can to prevent them. I know of no-one who disagrees with this approach. 

Contrast that with events surrounding the ongoing court case of Suzy Austen, a woman who allegedly helped a 77 year old woman to prematurely end her life in June 2016. Austen’s early court appearances have been marked by her supporters arguing for a so-called right for people to “make their own decisions when it comes to the end of their life” without interference.

The Austen court case raises a number of questions: Why do some people think that the premature death by suicide of an older woman, who according to various media accounts was not actually dying, is a defendable and even admirable action while continuing to hold that the suicide of a younger person is a reprehensible act? Whatever way one looks at it, such a stance requires holding the view that there are certain ‘lives unworthy of life’?

All moral judgements rest on assumptions about what is most valuable. These assumptions are bound up in particular individual and societal narratives (stories) that help us make sense of the world and decide what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. So, as an ethicist, I ask, ‘What kind of narrative underpins the conclusion that some suicides are desirable while others are not?’ and ‘What other consequences might flow from such a narrative?’

Unless one argues there is absolutely no need for any regulations whatsoever, any euthanasia or assisted suicide regime requires a judgement from someone other than the person concerned that they qualify. This, logically, requires making a prior judgement that some lives are less worthwhile than other lives. In countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, this has led to academic debates about which lives are ‘of too mediocre quality’.

In turn, the ability to make such decisions requires some common agreement about what makes a life worth living.

In our time, more and more people are subscribing to what is referred to as a ‘functionalist’ assessment of life. By this is meant an approach that measures a person’s worth according to their ability to be successful, productive, independent and in control. It’s not a new approach. As far back as 1946, Victor Frankl wrote in his well-known book “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “… today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”

This functionalist narrative described by Frankl is clearly an ‘ageist’ one as well as an ‘ableist’ one because it feeds the idea that the young and productive are more deserving of life. According to that logic, the place of our elders, the disabled and other ‘non-productive’ persons in society rests on a concession – the generosity or tolerance of society – rather than any ‘right’ to life.

The debate about assisted death is, therefore, a contest between differing narratives about human worth. It’s a debate about the rules of engagement between society and those who are most vulnerable, whether because of age, disability or illness, and their ‘right to occupy’ a valued space in society without having to justify it. From a philosophical and ethical stance, it’s ultimately a debate about the sort of society we want – about the sorts of people who will feel unconditionally included and welcomed.

In other words, if we commit to going down the track of euthanasia and assisted suicide we will be committing to re-writing the societal narrative so as to create distinctions in policy and law between those deserving of life and those not deserving. For me and many others, that is too big a price to pay.

My plea is that we re-commit ourselves to speaking of and treating our elderly as ‘elders’, as ‘taonga’. This requires us to create a counter-narrative to that of functionalism and its progeny, ableism and ageism. Above all, it requires the State to eschew any involvement in making judgements about the worth of its citizens. In New Zealand there are many rich cultural perspectives we can call on to inform such a counter-narrative.

Let’s instead fight for the sort of generous, inclusive and effective care that addresses the suffering, whether existential or physiological, of all who might contemplate prematurely ending their lives, whatever their age or ability.

Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre, the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre