Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Suicide & the death wish of a civilisation

Those who feel they have no choice but to seek to end their lives in Swiss death clinics deserve our prayers and our sympathy rather than our condemnation; those who encourage them along the path to that course of action are the ones who are most culpable, and those who violate the Hippocratic oath and administer the lethal injection are quite simply guilty of murder. However, those who provide sympathetic coverage and those who campaign for a “Dignitas” style clinic in every town are those who are guilty of the assisted suicide of a entire civilisation.
I’m afraid the latest reports concerning the deaths of the eminent conductor and his wife, Sir Edward and Lady Downes, while evoking a deep sympathy for the physical and mental anguish they must have endured, chill me to the bone. This is not merely the latest sign of the end of the universal Judeao-Christian horror at the act of suicide, but it seems to be the incarnation and exaltation of that philosophical death wish which has come back from the ancient world to haunt western civilisation.

In nineteenth century India the British authorities took steps to outlaw Suttee, a tradition where a widow would immolate herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre. A question: should this practice have been permissible if the action were undertaken voluntarily or, as the more sentimental would say, out of love? Our nineteenth century forbears apparently thought not. This was not only because they were well aware that there are more subtle forms of coercion than the mere use of physical force (as the House of Lords also recognised last week in its debate on Lord Falconer’s deeply disturbing Assisted Suicide Bill) but also because they believed that human beings are not disposable commodities and that our lives are not ours to end at will.

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