Bob McCoskrie: Assisted suicide is still a form of suicide

OPINION: In a recent exchange with Family First, euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke tweeted: "Suicide is a fundamental human right - one that society has no moral right to interfere with."

I find that attitude highly disturbing.

He had previously come under fire from two Australian suicide prevention organisations, Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute, after his involvement in the suicide of a physically healthy 45-year-old Australian man.

Many people believe that the promotion of assisted suicide is a message that will be heard not just by those with a terminal illness but also by anyone tempted to think they can no longer cope with their suffering - whatever the nature of that suffering.

And this appears to be the theme of the Facebook post by National MP Simon O'Connor - even if it was clumsily expressed.

Another MP Chester Borrows was just as blunt recently: "We have a horrific record on suicide and I think [euthanasia] sends a message that sometimes it is okay to top yourself."

An analysis of the submissions to the Select Committee considering euthanasia recently found that almost a quarter of the 17,000 submissions opposing euthanasia were concerned about mixed messages being sent to the young, disabled and vulnerable about suicide.

You don't discourage suicide by assisting suicide.

  • If you wish to talk to someone about mental illness or domestic violence, you can call Lifeline on 0800 543 354, the Depression Helpline on 0800 111 757 or the National Telehealth Service on 1737.

There is a 'social contagion' aspect to suicide - assisted or non-assisted - and we need more discussion about suicide prevention, not euthanasia.

Laws permitting assisted suicide send a societal message that, under especially difficult circumstances, some lives are judged to be not worth living — and that suicide is a reasonable or appropriate way out of dealing with suffering.

The Scottish parliament report considering the introduction of an assisted suicide bill in 2015 said:

"The Committee is concerned that this has the potential not only to undermine the general suicide prevention message by softening cultural perceptions of suicide at the perimeters, but also to communicate an offensive message to certain members of our community (many of whom may be particularly vulnerable) that society would regard it as 'reasonable', rather than tragic, if they wished to end their lives."  

Protracted discussion and the promotion of assisted suicide and related cases will - even unintentionally - undermine the suicide prevention message by implying that the promotion of mental health and wellbeing for people in pain is futile or counterproductive, and that suicide is their best outcome.

People contemplating suicide may justify doing it based on positive stories and arguments they have heard about assisted suicide

The World Health Organization notes the scholarly research on the imitative nature of suicide:

"Systematic reviews of these (50) studies have consistently drawn the same conclusion: media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours.… Particular subgroups in the population (e.g., young people, people suffering from depression) may be especially vulnerable to engaging in imitative suicidal behaviours."

It can feed into people's fears about dying, fears which are well dealt with through the sort of holistic care provided by palliative care.

ACT MP David Seymour's Bill proposes assisted suicide for someone with a "grievous and irremediable medical condition".

If you have ever struggled with mental illness, that definition absolutely fits - at the time.

A New Zealand Medical Journal report said that reporting on suicide in any way puts vulnerable people at risk.

It's time to focus on providing the very best palliative care and support for vulnerable people - whether they are at the end of their life, or momentarily wishing they were at the end of their life.

Robert Salamanca wanted to commit suicide after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. This was when Jack Kevorkian was - to much media acclaim - helping people with disabilities and terminal conditions kill themselves.

Eventually, he admitted, "I came out of the fog," so happy to be alive. Before he died, Bob wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle titled 'I Don't Want a Choice to Die':

"[R]eporting in the media too often makes us feel like token presences, burdens who are better off dead... Many pro-euthanasia groups "showcase" people with ALS. They portray us as feeble, unintelligible and dying by slow suffocation. This is absolutely false, and I protest their efforts vehemently. By receiving proper medical care, a terminally ill person can pass away peacefully, pain-free and with dignity. We are not people just waiting for someone to help us end our misery, but to the contrary, we are people reaching out to love... to be loved... wanting to feel life at its best. Too many people have accepted the presumption that an extermination of some human lives can be just... Where has our sense of community gone? True, terminal illness is frightening, but the majority of us overpower the symptoms and are great contributors to life."

Suicide. Assisted suicide. We can live without them.

Bob McCoskrie is the national director of Family First New Zealand, an organisation which emphasises Judeo-Christian values.