Articles about euthanasia, together with intense debates on whether people have the right to commit suicide, seem to grow by the day.
Perhaps there are circumstances when death is eminently preferable to life. Were I to know that I was to be imminently captured by IS, I hope that my cyanide capsule would do the job beforehand; I am not brave enough to withstand torture or lengthy incarceration. Neither would I want to wait to be beheaded. So in those circumstances I’d rather end my life my own way.
Yet I think we would be unwise to become too obsessed over the question of whether people have the right to commit suicide. Yes, I suppose people should technically have the right to kill themselves – just as they have the right to impale themselves on a fence, shove bananas up their armpits or indulge in all kinds of activities. And, yes, one can understand some people’s depression, especially those who are told they are terminally ill, or paralysed following a debilitating illness.
I would also agree that it’s unwise to second guess people’s suffering; we never know the inner circumstances of someone’s life. But perhaps the pertinent question is this. Are people realistic in thinking that their life will never improve? Or that they will never do anything constructive again? Or that they will never enrich other people’s lives through their continued existence?
The film The Theory of Everything brought home this point. There’s poor old Hawking diagnosed at the age of 21 with motor neurone disease and told he has two years left to live. (Doubtless the doctors were entirely sincere about this prognosis at the time.) He was entitled to be despondent. The film seems to indicate he was resigned to his fate but saved by a fellow student’s love. Yet, 52 years later, Hawking is very much with us, albeit immobile, decrepit and emaciated, his extraordinary intellect having produced several best-selling books, and still enthralling audiences with his every pronouncement.
Yet perhaps some rather misguided humanist would have noted his depression back in 1963 and produced some capsules. Or even Hawking himself, a little later, as he dragged himself up the stairs (as depicted in the film) every step negotiated only through excruciating effort – as his toddler son peered at him pityingly from behind the gate at the top – might have been forgiven for wondering if death was preferable.
Unfortunately, many of us have bought into the notion that life should not be a struggle. And I’d include my younger self in this category. Perhaps this stems in part from the ‘my rights’ school of thinking. After all, it’s not too much of a leap from saying it’s my right to a job, and a roof over my head, to saying it’s my right to expect happiness. One of life’s lessons is that perhaps this is not so.
The annual Academy Awards, by the way, can be illuminating, but not always for obvious reasons. Sometimes you do hear speeches that make one think. One such was from screenwriter Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game. Moore said he had attempted suicide at 16. “I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong,” he