It’s not often that the background to cases of legal assisted suicide emerges. But in the summer newsletter of End of Life Washington, a dying-with-dignity campaigner explains how she counselled someone who wanted to end his life.
End of Life Washington, formerly Compassion & Choices of Washington and before that, the Hemlock Society, promotes assisted suicide. One of its board members, Professor Judith Perry, a psychotherapist, relates Perry’s story. She describes it as “death with dignity, not a suicide”. Is it?
Her narrative begins 25 years ago, when she counselled Perry for chronic anxiety and depression. At the time he was in his 30s and living on a psychiatric disability because he was unable to work at a normal job. He was isolated and had few friends. Neither hospitalization, drugs nor Dr Gordon’s counselling helped.
He decided to commit suicide – but in a novel way.
He booked a trip to a Caribbean resort, where he planned to go on a diving trip and to never return. Dr Gordon felt grieved at losing him but did not want to stop him. But to her surprise, he returned two weeks later. He had become friendly with the resort staff and didn’t want to upset them. A few months later, he tried the Caribbean option again. Again he returned, alive and kicking, this time because he had been on a dive boat with a recently married couple and he didn’t want to ruin their honeymoon.
And for the next 25 years, there were no more suicide attempts. Obviously Perry had been looking for an excuse to live, not an opportunity to die. And he ended up finding one: he moved to a country town and became a dog sitter and dog walker. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it made him happy. Dr Gordon even comments:
I used to tell Perry’s story as an example of how clients who are suicidal are sometimes helped not by a psychotherapy intervention but by the intervention of life itself, such as making new friends and experiencing joy, or spending time with a special friend, or connecting with animals and nature.
However, not long ago, Perry rang Dr Gordon. He had cancer and he told her that he was going to take advantage of the assisted suicide law in Washington state. This time, it seems, she did not try to dissuade him. Nor did an oncologist, a hospice nurse, and a pharmacist. Nor the brother and long-time friend in whose presence he died.
Let Dr Gordon describe how his circle reacted to his decision:
He was weak, tired, and distrustful of the medical profession and only pursued DWD [death with dignity] at the entreaties of his family and friends, who were horrified by the suffering his suicide would cause not only him but them. With their help, encouragement, and advocacy, and with courage, caring, and integrity, Perry was able to use the law. Thoughtful and responsible to the end, Perry chose to die one day after his social security check arrived, so that he could cover the cost of his cremation.
Let’s unpack this astonishingly callous paragraph.
His family (presumably only his brother) and his friend (he only had one) were horrified by the suffering that jumping from a bridge would cause them. They pushed this psychologically disabled man toward choosing suicide. And they were relieved that they would not have to foot the bill for a cremation.
Dr Gordon says that Perry died “surrounded by love”.
“Surrounded by relief” on the part of medicos, family and friends would be more accurate. Relief that they wouldn’t have to put up with his crochets and eccentricities. Relief that they wouldn’t have to support him in a painful journey through cancer. Relief that they wouldn’t be confronted by a messy suicide. Relief that they wouldn’t be out of pocket. Is that love?
Is this the way assisted suicide works? By setting expectations of solidarity, care and affection so low that, for the suffering and disabled, death becomes a better option?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.