Edinburgh’s in the news with the story of a man who claims he had a suicide pact with his wheelchair-bound wife. He smothered her with a pillow. John Miller told neighbours that he and his wife, Phyllis, who had multiple sclerosis, shared a suicide pact, and ground up paracetamol. Phyllis managed to fight him off – she is now in a nursing home and her husband is in custody awaiting sentence. Remarkably perhaps, Millar himself dialled 999 afterwards telling police: “I tried to kill my wife.”
This bizarre story raises a couple of interesting points. Firstly, it would seem there is no doubt that this was not a compassionate act of mercy killing, much less a suicide pact. It was a murder attempt and was rightly treated as such. But the second point is about paracetamol. This is an easily obtained, over-the-counter drug that is commonly used in suicide attempts with disastrous and unintended results. In the UK it is the most common agent of intentional self-harm and is responsible for approximately 70,000 cases per year. It is the most common cause of acute liver failure. (reference) Whether for rational or irrational reasons, no-one should ever attempt to end their own life with paracetamol (or ‘acetaminophen’ or ‘Tylenol’ outside of the UK). Exit had a call one day from a young man who had taken an overdose and said ‘he wanted to know if he had taken enough.’ Quite apart from the fact that Exit never gives out such advice on the phone, we were concerned for his well-being, and tried to stress how he must check in to a hospital immediately. It was even more worrying when he phoned back some hours later and said he felt ‘fine’ and had just had a nap. With rapid treatment, paracetamol poisoning can be treated effectively. If treatment is delayed, permanent liver damage can result. This often does not kill – but it may mean a lifetime of dialysis. As a method of causing one’s own death, it is exceedingly unreliable and very hazardous. Safe, painless methods of self-deliverance (rational suicide) are detailed in Exit’s publications, Departing Drugs and Five Last Acts.
Providing information on effective drugs and other means of suicide for rational people who, faced with unbearable and unrelievable suffering, want to time their own departure, has always been the lesser of two evils. We need properly regulated, legal assistance, instead of the muddy situation just now where compassionate acts may be viewed more lightly than murder attempts that have nothing in common with compassion. If assisted suicide were legal, people like John Millar would be less tempted to hide behind such fabrications as there would be no excuse for covert assisted suicide.