The Welsh newspaper Wales Online recently reported the tragic story of a 44-year-old Welsh academic who chose suicide in the face of her deteriorating health due to the lethal degenerative disease multiple sclerosis. Frances Medley, the former acting head of the Wales Arts Council, a high achiever by any measure, declared in her blog:
The prospect of further rapid deterioration was both terrifying and not one I wanted to entertain. I decided to end my life in a manner of my choosing. I am very clear that, whilst the law might say otherwise, I AM NOT COMMITTING SUICIDE.”
Medley also commented: “Hold your tongue at times when you risk blurting out judgmental potentially hurtful comments; we seldom know the full back story.” Certainly a good principle to live by and one, that for the sake of her memory and the devastation at her loss, I intend to honour.
However, I do feel it appropriate to question Medley’s assertion that she was not committing suicide. There are so many soft-sell euphemisms floating around about suicide and, particularly assisted suicide that are doubtless designed to help us see suicide as a good. It isn’t. Think of terms such as, ‘self-deliverance’, ‘final exit’, ‘assistance in dying’, ‘dignity in dying’ or even the phrase Medley herself used, ‘end my life in a manner of my choosing’. These and other euphemisms are well rehearsed by the pro-euthanasia and pro-assisted suicide brigade; hardly any wonder that they are restated by people such as Ms Medley.
Why then would Medley feel the need to assert, in such strong terms, that she was not committing suicide? After all, if she had self-defined her death differently, why would there be a need to draw attention to suicide if, indeed, the term did not apply to her? Moreover, Medley herself would not be around to hear any criticisms about her actions.
The inescapable reality is that suicide remains probably the last major taboo in our society, and rightly so. We exhaust significant public expenditure and effort attempting to stop people from committing suicide and we have a myriad of helplines, websites and counselling services to back up these worthy initiatives. We don’t want people to commit suicide.
We know that the grief of family members at a suicide death of a loved one is deep; the unanswered questions lingering on for years. Perhaps Ms Medley’s family has a clearer understanding about why, in her case; after all, her suffering was clearly evident. But that does not change the reality that suicide is still considered to be a negative.
Australian euthanasia activist Philip Nitschke’s promotion of one of his suicide methods goes so far as to make an ‘undetectable cause of death’ a selling point for those who would be concerned that they didn’t want to be remembered as the relative that killed themselves. Perhaps that is part of Medley’s fear.
Regardless, we cannot simply wish away the reality of suicide. Those that peddle the soft sell that make such actions seem ‘heroic’ or ‘rational’ should have a good hard look at the possible havoc they cause.
Some would, and have, tried to sheet home the taboo nature of suicide to latent religious sentiment. It is true that various religions have, in their own ways, sought to re-enforce the taboo by various sanctions, but so has society at large – and we still do that in so many ways. But the origins of the taboo cannot be simply dismissed as being based upon religion – and we should be thankful for that!
We want people who are feeling desperate to know that ending their lives by suicide is not acceptable; just as we want and hope that they will always find support and strength to push through their difficulties. And, while Ms Medley’s difficulties were not going to pass and she was facing the trajectory that all MS sufferers do, acceptance of one’s increasing limitations and deterioration and looking positively to what they still can do should still provide impetus to want to help – to want to stop that suicide.
Some suicide prevention associations understand this while some remain silent. Yes, there are differences between, say, a young person attempting suicide over a broken relationship and people in Ms Medley’s circumstances, but significant danger lurks in accepting a different attitude to suicide of a sick or infirmed person than from any other.
As with euthanasia, should we accept that suicide can, in some circumstances, be rational and even laudable, we send a confusing mixed message to vulnerable people – particularly the young. Additionally, we risk becoming numb and even subtly endorsing some suicides – particularly those that are reported in the press.
If we’re going to accept the justification of illness or disability for suicide or euthanasia then, over time, we’ll also come to accept other criteria and expand the range of acceptable illnesses and disabilities. We cannot take a harm-minimization approach to suicide.
The Wales Online report is well written and focuses on the loss and also on the achievements of clearly a vivacious, community spirited woman. It, thankfully, does not make the error – as so many do – of turning the story into an argument for euthanasia or assisted suicide. It isn’t.
If you are experiencing difficulties and are in need of help, we encourage you to call LifeLine on 13 11 14 (Australia).
This article has been republished with permission from Paul Russell’s blog .