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The narcissism of assisted suicide

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A recent case has demonstrated that the issue of assisted suicide is not solely about alleviating suffering.

In his perceptive book, The Culture of Narcissism, the American social critic Christopher Lasch observed that in modern life,

“The usual defences against the ravages of age – identification with ethical or artistic values beyond one’s immediate interests, intellectual curiosity, the comforting emotional warmth of happy relationships in the past – can do nothing for the narcissist”.

In a generation that has forgotten its place in the continuum of past and future generations, Lasch observed that many live for the fleeting sensation of personal wellbeing, health, and psychic security.

As Lasch subsequently observed, his investigation into narcissism was frequently misinterpreted. In his writing, Lasch did not define narcissism as a confident self-centredness, but rather as an inability of an entire culture to see beyond the boundaries of its own existence, to comprehend the role of the self in the context of history, or to believe in its capacity to rationally control the future. Lasch posited that the pursuit of self-preservation had supplanted self-improvement as the paramount aspiration.

There is a discernible degree of narcissistic survivalism in the openness of many Western societies to assisted suicide. This was exemplified by the journey undertaken by Gill Pharaoh, a 75-year-old retired nurse who was in good health, to the LifeCircle suicide clinic in Switzerland.

Pharaoh, who passed away on 21 July of this year, was not suffering from any illness, but expressed a desire to die. In her final blog post, she expressed her desire for people to remember her as she currently is, acknowledging the wear and tear of time but maintaining her identity.

The notion of preserving one’s self for posterity through the act of taking a ‘snapshot’ sentiment is arguably an illusion. It is not possible to control how people remember us, nor can we preserve a moment in time. It is impossible to identify a single, definitive moment or an ideal physical representation of oneself, as life is a continuous process of change. The notion of an ‘authentic’ self is inherently flawed, as it is impossible to capture the essence of a person at a single point in time.

It is evident that a ‘perfect’ or merely ‘good’ death is meaningless to the deceased. The act of suicide does not maintain or perpetuate anything; rather, it extinguishes the possibility of further experiences and interactions.

Pharaoh was unwavering in her rejection of religion. She once expressed her disillusionment with the law, which she perceived as originating from a deity in whom she had no belief. In the absence of a broader meaning or belief system, it can be argued that those who advocate for assisted suicide are attempting to create a religion of the self.

This is a religion that views the world as a mirror, that places importance on how people are perceived, and that does not feel an obligation to previous generations who struggled to make life easier and leave a legacy for future generations. This mindset is responsible for the self-inflicted deaths of individuals such as Pharaoh. It is unclear why she believed that those in the future would welcome her decision to sacrifice her life. This was apparently motivated by a fear that it would become more challenging and less enjoyable.

Pharaoh had been a member of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS), a UK-based organisation that seeks to alter existing legislation to permit elderly, mentally competent individuals who are suffering from various health problems to receive assistance from a medical professional to end their lives. Many of those who belong to these groups perceive themselves as individuals who are independent and self-reliant, and who chart their own course in life.

However, this is also a delusional perspective. Those espousing rugged individualism would be expected to perform the act themselves, rather than seek assistance from the government. Pharaoh was a nurse who was undoubtedly aware of the means by which she could ensure her own demise without having to travel to Switzerland. However, one of the arguments in favour of assisted suicide is that it would provide official validation of suffering.

The narcissist experiences a pervasive need to be acknowledged, to be acknowledged, to have their emotions validated, and to find some reflection of themselves in the world. If the narcissist is fearful, then the world must take action to address this. The narcissist perceives a world that fails to acknowledge their existential anguish (after all, physical pain does not even feature in the top five reasons why people in Oregon opt for assisted suicide) as the source of that distress.

If this is not narcissism, then it is difficult to comprehend why Pharaoh and other assisted-suicide advocates are so vocal about their need to be able to die quietly and for the state to validate their decision. The impetus behind the assisted-suicide lobby is the conviction that the world must be shaped to accommodate the perceived needs of individuals who are afflicted.

It is not the intention of this discourse to cast aspersions upon Pharaoh herself. (Nevertheless, as others have observed, her appeal for people not to judge her decision might have been more persuasive had she not sought so much publicity.) In truth, the impetus behind Pharaoh’s decision to take her own life is shared by a number of other campaigners for assisted suicide.

The most compelling rationale behind the campaign to alter the legislation on assisted suicide is the fear of the prospect of old age and disability. Furthermore, the campaign does not solely target the very old and infirm.

In the Netherlands, one of the earliest adopters of assisted suicide and euthanasia as a medical procedure, a citizens’ initiative called Uit Vrije Wil (Out of Free Will) attracted more than 117,000 letters of support in 2010 for its proposal to extend assisted suicide to all persons over 70 who are simply ‘tired of life’.

The ‘six months to live’ clause in UK Member of Parliament Rob Marris’s 2015 private member’s bill on assisted dying evoked the fear of physical deterioration in a way that resonates with Pharaoh’s sentiments. It is important to note that the arbitrary measure of ‘six months to live’ is not a reliable indicator of the remaining lifespan of an individual. It can be argued that all humans are terminally ill to some extent, and that the length of one’s life does not necessarily impact the meaningfulness of it. As the pioneering author of On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, has observed, assisting someone in ending their own life, even if it avoids pain, nevertheless deprives them of experiences and a part of life.

Gill Pharaoh’s narrative illustrates the manner in which a culture that encourages individuals to evade the final stages of life will inevitably prompt them to evade the discomforts of old age and infirmity. However, as my grandfather used to say, old age is challenging, but it is preferable to the alternative.

Kevin Yuill is a professor of American studies at the University of Sunderland. His most recent publication, Assisted Suicide: The text The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation is published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book can be purchased from Amazon (UK).


Daniel Miller is responsible for nearly all of National Right to Life News' political writing.

With the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, Daniel Miller developed a deep obsession with U.S. politics that has never let go of the political scientist. Whether it's the election of Joe Biden, the midterm elections in Congress, the abortion rights debate in the Supreme Court or the mudslinging in the primaries - Daniel Miller is happy to stay up late for you.

Daniel was born and raised in New York. After living in China, working for a news agency and another stint at a major news network, he now lives in Arizona with his two daughters.

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