Some thoughts on assisted suicide

I wrote the following piece 17 months ago but as the issue of assisted suicide is still live (sorry, couldn’t resist it); note this news item from yesterday about Glaswegian Helen Cowie, and the Strathclyde Police announcement that they are not investigating the case of her son Robert’s death in Switzerland.

Margo MacDonald sparked controversy!

Margo MacDonald sparked controversy again recently with her assisted suicide bill. Or did she? There was considerably less drama surrounding this bill because she has Parkinson’s disease, and hearing those arguments from a shaking woman is powerful. Most of those who feel obligated to condemn right-to-die legislation on grounds of faith and/or morality are rarely in the company of folks who have to live in deteriorating and dysfunctional bodies.

I met Margo once – very briefly – and took to her instantly. She is a decent, thinking sort of person. Even those who disagree with this woman still respect her.  This bill of hers is very sensibly structured and there are enough processes to go through to flag up any unscrupulous money-grabbing progeny attempting to knock inconvenient parentals off their mortal coils. You’ve got to convince a doctor and a psychiatrist twice, and there is a cooling-off period too.

Can I let you into a wee secret though folks. People who want to die know they want to die.  I’m stating the obvious here, but the obvious is often lost in discussions of this type. And here’s another obvious one coming – assisted suicide is not for everyone. For some people it would be quite wrong, it wouldn’t fit them. Everybody is unique. Every BODY is unique too and so are our experiences of those bodies. We can deal with extraordinary things. We often surprise ourselves and each other. This makes the prospect of life a little easier for those living in scary bodies.

I watched Terry Pratchett’s lecture on Assisted Death with much interest.  He wants to die with dignity and frankly I think the man is entitled to it. And I also believe he entitled to know that those left behind to mourn him aren’t going to find themselves in the poky for it. He has early-onset Alzheimer’s and he knows what the end of his life will bring.  He is making his wishes known now in an attempt to rattle the lawmakers south of the border in to a compassionate response.

Those of us not currently dying from our long-term illnesses should be encouraged into the debate too. Many of us suffer chronic depression. Many of us have the level of physical dependency on others that our dying friends find so terrifying. I have depressive moments once in a while, mostly when I’m exhausted. On days like that the thought of waking up dead the next day is rather appealing. I know that sentence doesn’t make sense, but it’s the best way I have of putting it. I get this feeling maybe once or twice a year at most even though I’m in pain every waking moment. I’m pondering this stuff a bit differently just now as I’m most of the way through filling in a DLA re‑application form. These are real horrors. It’s difficult not to feel a little down once you’ve listed and documented every part of you that doesn’t work. The process is grim and I don’t mind telling you it left me feeling at a complete loss to work out why anyone likes, loves or hangs out with me. I feel I am too much work to be around. This’ll pass and I’ll be bothering everyone at my usual rate soon enough. If that feeling was there all the time, and every day I wished that I’d wake up dead the next day, then I think I’d be signing up for assisted death too. I’m of the opinion that misery is not sustainable, and I therefore choose to be happy. And for me it really was that conscious, and the feelings followed on later. If misery is your only constant and happiness cannot be conjured, then life itself is not sustainable.

I’m aware that we won’t all be in agreement on this and that is absolutely fine. Thankfully the legislation is not prescriptive! My hope is that whatever side of the fence you find yourself on, you remain compassionate in response to the tough choices made by the chronically ill and dying ordinary people all around you. We are everywhere you know. Sometimes we’re stuck indoors or in hospitals. Sometimes we’re wrestling with a Trident Nuclear weapons system. We are your sisters and brothers; your fathers and mothers; your neighbours and friends; your leaders and representatives; and we might be you some day too. And as for Margo MacDonald, that troublesome gem of a wummin, I’ll stand with her at the barricades right up to the point I collapse and send someone healthy to grab a chair.  Those barricades better have disabled access though. And the lasting epitaph for Margo herself?  “Margo MacDonald sparked controversy!”


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Morag Eyrie
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 22:18:56

    Hi Morag, thanks for your post.

    It’s made me rethink my position on legislation for assisted suicide. Previously I went back and forth about it, but I’ve always felt, with encroaching fascism and hyper-individualism in the UK, and most other Western countries, we need to be very careful about crossing this line to legalising any form of legalised non-natural death. I took this view somewhat from my general understanding of how the world currently works, and from reading a lot of disability politics stuff that is vehemently against legalising assisted suicide- I’m sure you’re familiar with it all.

    I think bodily autonomy is paramount, which is why I am pro-abortion rights. I did think, after thinking about your piece, about how people might have worried that making abortion legal would mean that, in a misogynist society where many women have little power, women might be forced into abortions they don’t want. In that case, I still 100% go for supporting abortion and simultaneously support measures to liberate women in all areas. So I stepped more firmly back over the line to the argument you put forward!

    Having read some stuff recently on how older people are treated within the NHS, due to resource restrictions mainly but also priorities and ageism, it does still worry me a bit that powerless people may be railroaded, or subtly pressured into “choosing” assisted suicide. I did feel qualms when I read the Cowie case because I’ve read so much stuff from people with the kind of disabilities that the young man had, talking about the value and fulfilment of their lives. But ultimately, what if one has exhausted al the possibilities and still comes to the conclusion they want to die?

    I think the main problem is ensuring that people of all classes and backgrounds get to exhaust the same set of possibilities!


  2. Mhairi McAlpine
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 22:41:25

    In the light of the Assange and DSK cases recently I’ve been considering the need for the prosecution to prove non-consent beyond reasonable doubt where the defence alledges that the victim consented. This has an interesting parallel with assisted suicide and indeed this issue could push how rape is handled. Both are issues of bodily autonomy and consent.

    Where a defendent was on trial for murder and chose to use an assisted suicide defence, there would be no requirement for the prosecution to prove that there was non-consent, as non-consent would be the default. It would be for the defence to prove that there was consent there. This contrasts with the way rape cases are handled as legally women exist in a state of perpetual consent, and it is for the prosecution to prove the victim did not consent.


  3. Barbara Evans
    Aug 02, 2011 @ 17:11:26

    I too watched Terry Pratchetts a Right to Die and am in complete agreement. Its not for everybody but everybody should have the choice. They didn’t tell you how much it cost so I can only assume it is expensive which makes it unfair as it would only be available for those with money.

    I haven’t looked into what Margo McDonald is proposing but will do asap.


  4. Lallands Peat Worrier
    Aug 10, 2011 @ 14:10:35

    And just to add a legal twist to the topic, the position in Scotland and England and Wales is not the same. While the Suicide Act 1961 makes “assisting suicide” an offence, it does not extend to Scotland. Up here, it is the law of homicide which regulates forms of “assistance”. I am not surprised that Strathclyde Polis aren’t investigating Helen Cowie. While what she did may be “assisting suicide”, it is obviously a strange stretch to draw her conduct within the compass of “culpable homicide”. Unfortunately, Holyrood’s analysis of Margo’s Bill in the last session signally failed to explore these differences between the position in Scotland and England, or make clear what is criminalised there which might be legal here.


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