By Paul Russell, Founder, HOPE Australia
In October 2015, an elderly couple from the Melbourne suburb of Brighton were found dead in their own home. Sad to say, the news story was the third couple or double suicide in the media within a few short weeks; the other two were in my home town of Adelaide.
The Australian news media has a reasonably good reputation for sensibility and consideration when reporting on such matters as news stories. Unfortunately, at least one major Australian newspaper network seems to disregard those same sensibilities when the story is no longer news but, rather, an opportunity to push their editorial line in support of euthanasia and The ‘Nitschke line’ on so-called ‘rational suicide’.
According to a story in The Age, Pat and Peter Shaw both committed suicide in their own home. Their three daughters, who knew the date, time and intention of their parents were away from the house at the time. It was common knowledge that Peter Shaw, at least, was an enthusiastic member of Exit International; the article suggested that he killed himself in his shed using Exit-type equipment.
Sadly, these kinds of double suicide pacts are no longer the isolated cases that they once were. There have even been recorded instances of double euthanasia in Belgium where the partner who was not ill could not imagine living without the other. From The Age article, written by Julia Medew, it seems that this Victorian case was different. Both had deteriorating health – but nether were terminal and, from the report, neither could be said to be suffering unbearably.
In other words, neither would likely have qualified under the normal form of euthanasia and assisted suicide bills.
The article expends a great deal of effort and column space in painting the picture of a vivacious and loving couple with stellar intellects and interests, including trekking, mountain climbing and hiking to exotic places. Even so, as a biography I can’t imagine it would hold the same interest for The Age’s readers if it were not for the suicide angle. In fact, I doubt that it would have been published at all.
So, how does it serve the pro-euthanasia cause? Quite frankly, it may not. But, then again, if it is emotion and not logic nor ethics that we are relying upon, then perhaps I’m wrong.
Short version folks: Sad as it is, and as much of a problem you or I or anyone else might have with what the Shaw’s did, they did not, as far as we know, commit any legal offence. They killed themselves with apparent ease. Their children were sufficiently removed to be appropriately beyond suspicion of assisting. There was a proper investigation. Case closed.
The three children told The Age that they respected their parents’ choice and feel strongly that suicide can be rational. They also said that, ‘their parents should not have had to risk prosecution to die together at the time of their choosing. Nor should they have had to be alone for the legal protection of their family.’
The criminal code prohibition on assisting in suicide is not about protecting the family. It is about protecting vulnerable people from being coaxed or coerced to their suicide death.
Sometimes it may be a protection from the family (though that is clearly not the case here).
Daughter Kate belled the cat: “It shouldn’t be so difficult for rational people to make this decision,” she said. The whole reason for the article is to promote the idea that suicide can be rational; perhaps even desirable. A loving, smart and vivacious couple serving as poster folk to normalise what has for millennia been rightly stigmatised for the protection of fragile and vulnerable people: suicide – self-killing.
Even if some people kill themselves supposedly “rationally,” The Age and the likes of Philip Nitschke have failed to answer the obvious objection: what about those who are not rational but whose mental state is such that they think that they are and who therefore find an imprimatur for their suicide in this argument? No suicide hotline at the end of the article can absolve responsibility.
Moreover, I do not accept the inference that, because the Shaws were intelligent and learned or because they left notes saying so, that their decision to suicide was, indeed, rational. The article provides some clues.
They were clearly scared witless of deterioration, decrepitude and the loss of independence that those early aches, pains and memory problems of advancing age can sometimes presage. Peter Shaw in a 2007 letter to the editor of The Age said, “Our reason for suicide may be anticipation of pain and incompetence, but quite likely just a sense of a life accomplished and coming to a conclusion.” The article screams the former which makes the idea of a ‘finished life’ seem more like an apologia.
Shaw’s letter went on: “We are not interested in palliative care, and strongly resent do-gooders placing obstacles in or way.” The article qualified the ‘do-gooders’ as ‘religious’ people, ‘with the superstitions of medieval inquisitors.’ Cue Monty Python! What obstacles? The only real obstacles are the laws that prohibit the importation of lethal substances and the law prohibiting people from assisting; both make complete sense and both are maintained by the states variously and not the churches.
As if that were not enough, [The Sydney Morning Herald] published a follow up piece by the same author only days later, surprise, surprise, based on a fulsome endorsement of rational suicide by none other than Nitschke himself .
Thankfully, on this second occasion, a contrary voice is included in comments from Professor Ian Hickie. Hickie, a psychiatrist and mental health campaigner, said he thought it was tragic that people wanted to “check out” of life because of myths and negative stereotypes about ageing, pain relief, hospitals and how the health system treats elderly people.
‘He said while some people may not have a mental illness when they end their own life, Exit International’s approach to teaching people about suicide was reaching vulnerable people who could, with further assistance, live a longer, enjoyable life.
‘Professor Hickie, of the Brain and Mind Centre, said Australian authorities needed to work on policies and resources to promote healthy ageing with a focus on getting the right care and support to people so they do not feel like a burden and live as well as they can in their later years. He said people considering suicide or families discussing the issue should examine what is underpinning people’s motivation. Is it fear of being a burden? Is it fear of a lack of care?’
What’s the take home message from all of this? Sadly it is likely to be that those who decide to live as best they can and die as best they can in good care, come what may, are seen as either selfish, irresponsible or somehow lacking in capacity. These articles normalise suicide for the elderly.
What gets hidden in the layers of emotion and fear peddling is the deeper reality that euthanasia and assisted suicide are really not about the fabled ‘last resort’ situations of ‘unbearable pain’.
Nitschke himself identifies this in his call for decriminalizing the importation of suicide drugs for those over 70 years of age and the tweet where he makes it clear that euthanasia laws would not have helped in the ‘rational’ suicide of the Shaws.
But then, as ever, this isn’t really about supporting a push for euthanasia laws. It is a simple, three-stage sales technique: create the need, provide the solution and make the sale.
Editor’s note. This appeared at noeuthanasia.org.au and is reprinted with permission.