I am having a problem sorting out clearly and fully how I am supposed to feel about suicide.
The essence of the assisted suicide legislation being debated in the House of Commons is that at a time of my choosing, dying is my right which roughly translates as: when I decide to die is my decision and that is a good thing and needs to be respected as a matter of right, choice and dignity. For the most aggressive of right-to-die activists, my right to insist on a physician assisting me in planning and executing my timed demise should not be dependent on age, mental illness or even being in the grip of a terminal illness. All that matters is that I choose. To die now or at some future date I determine.
At the same time I, and millions of other Canadians, are rightly concerned and distressed at the news of suicides and suicide pacts on remote First Nations’ reserves across the country. Explanations for the suicides include trauma, psychological distress, substance abuse, depression, economic misfortune, colonization, oppression, disease, etc. A failure to intervene, a gap in funding for medical and counselling facilities, a seeming indifference to the suffering that results in the suicides is seen as a moral failure on the part of governments and society at large, and there is an insistent howl that something be done.
Suicides by military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress is considered a national disgrace and reason to condemn the government and the defence department as uncaring, unsympathetic and inhumane. The most common attack on government is that insufficient funding is given for the treatment of the clear and real anguish these soldiers are experiencing. When too little attention is paid to treating soldiers they are often left with no other choice but to take their own life. Arguably, the critics are correct.
In America a furious debate is unfolding over the rise in suicide rates across the board over all ages, for both sexes, and despite geography, race or class. Suicide in the United States is being characterized as an epidemic and the suspicion remains firm that if a similar survey was done in this country the results would not vary greatly.
We are seemingly torn between arguments that suicide is either a deep tragedy justifying intervention or that it is a constitutionally protected right that should be acceded to under any and all circumstances. Did I mention that I am confused?
For Catholics, suicide is a truly grave issue, a mortal sin, a submission to despair. But even the most legalistic among us appreciate that simply saying to a suicidal- minded individual that it is a sin to commit suicide is a truly insufficient response to the clear agony being expressed. I know a bit about pain. I have spent much of my life in serious debilitating pain. I know a bit about medical distress and worry. I have wrestled with a number of illnesses and currently wrestle with the scary and at times depressingly debilitating reality of cancer. And I have, as have most of us, followed the debate over medically assisted suicide with horror, fascination, confusion and some anger.
How can we believe that suicide is a form of inalienable right and at the same time believe that a suicide is evidence that an individual has been abandoned by society and left to his or her own inadequate resources. The two propositions are seriously at odds.
Eighty years ago, in The Crack Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” American philosopher Noam Chomsky has wisely pointed out that the quote is cut short by most people and that the actual full quote goes like this: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
The full quote is the more fully human position and the full quote should more fully guide our actions and intentions.
(Kavanagh, a journalist living in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ont., is author of The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.)