Voluntary euthanasia: a deadbeat solution

In an article written in April 2001, Kevin Yuill tells how a friend's suicide affected the family and friends left behind, and why he believes legalising euthanasia (or physician assisted suicide) would have dangerous consequences for society.

Some years ago, my friend Collin disappeared from the small Canadian town where we both had grown up. I was 18 when he left, suddenly, on a Friday. On Saturday his mother rang to see if he had stayed the night at our house and he didn't turn up to a social event in the evening. On Monday, a mutual friend called to say that Collin had been found dead in a hotel room in a nearby American city. He had blown his brains out with a pistol. He left a one-word note saying 'sorry'.

This event that cast such a deep pall over the town marked the end of my childhood. For weeks and months afterwards, my friends and I could talk of nothing else. Why had he done it? Had we failed him? In the end, we decided that Collin lacked the courage to deal with his problems and, more importantly, respect for those he left behind. His mother literally stopped talking for three months; his father took six months off work. His older brother spent all of his time at the local bar, and his 14-year-old sister would run sobbing from her classroom to her home. Even those who barely knew him talked in whispers and shook their heads when his family's name was mentioned.

Collin rejected not just those around him but the glorious possibilities of the future, the awe and wonderment of life's experiences. As a friend put it at the time, 'Collin pissed all over the rest of us'. Years later, I still feel some sort of anger mixed up with sadness when I remember him.

There is a similarity between the casual disregard for life that Collin felt and the perspective of campaigners for voluntary euthanasia. Our families and friends constitute a large part of our lives; if somebody close dies there is a sense that a part of us dies with them. Even if the wishes of families and friends are taken into account when the question of voluntary euthanasia arises, the question of the relation of the individual to broader society emerges.

How much do individuals owe in history and heritage - in the culture, or the cultures that have formed them - to the international communities that have existed among merchants, clerics, lawyers, agitators, scholars, scientists, writers and diplomats? We are all made by our languages, our literature, our cultures, our science, our religions, our civilisation. We owe a debt to the world and to the global community. Human life extends beyond the contours of the body.

The most corrosive effects of liberalising current law would not be a surge in demand for euthanasia, but the implications for wider society. As disabled groups rightly ask, who will define 'quality of life', a criterion for decisions regarding voluntary euthanasia? If it is the individual, all suicides, including those like Collin's, must be allowed and perhaps even assisted. If it is the doctors, what criteria will they use to evaluate an individual's quality of life? Some terminally ill patients live active and productive lives during their last days, others with the same condition do not.

To relativise life, as if it were no better than being dead, is dangerous as well as stupid. If we do not regard all human life as worth preserving, we will be forced to question laws that regard taking a life as murder, whether that life be an elderly, terminally ill hospital patient or a young person with many years ahead.

Nobody can save Collin from the fatal decision he made, or the impact that had on his loved ones. But we can discourage the view that death remains an attractive alternative to the difficulties of life.

The full article can be read here.