In a few hours time, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice will be upon us. It is the time of the longest night and the shortest day. From now on until midsummer, the days get longer and the sun shines warmer (warmer might be hard to believe in Scotland, but the days do get longer!)
For some people, those with either a terminal or untreatably unbearable illness, this news can pale in comparison to the long night they may well feel they are facing. In olden times, the solstice occasioned celebration as the sun was ‘born’ to new life. Spirits were lifted. It was regarded as the Nativity of the Sun – not so far perhaps from some modern religious institutions. But believer or not, one can definitely look forward to the material change occasioned by the earth’s movement.
For some that have no prospect of a favourable medical prognosis, religious faith will be enough. Suffering has been hailed in many religions as a way of realising greater truth. For others (who may perhaps not relish such truth on offer), something more tangible is needed to bring some light and joy into their remaining time. Palliative care and the love of friends and family can do much. But it is not always everything.
If I do my job well, the majority of people who have found merciful release through the information provided by Exit are no longer here to tell the tale. I don’t get heart-warming letters from the hereafter thanking me for easing their passing. But what I do get is letters of joy of a different kind.
When people know that they have the power of action again, it often brings an immense relief, a power to life life wholeheartedly to the full again. Faced with the knowledge of how to end their own life with dignity and freedom from additional pain, many will put it off to a later time. It’s one thing to have really bad days with no known end in sight: it’s quite another to have the choice to end it all or to go on.
As we approach death, choice slips away. The knowledge that allows us to choose the time of death gives us back the ultimate choice. Living becomes a choice. An adventure even. The inevitable is still there (as it is for all of us) – but it is that little bit more under our control. “Knowing has let me live longer,” one woman wrote, “Thank you!” The statistics from countries where euthanasia is permitted show similar trends. People don’t, overall, die sooner – just better.
But what of the ‘vulnerable’ ones who end their lives after an emotional trauma and who weren’t ill. No-one can feel anything but heartache for such a person. But it has been well-demonstrated that suicide rates do not go down when one method is removed (for instance, North Sea Gas in the UK). People determined to do so will find a way – probably just a more horrible way.
Imagine you have a hypothetical unbreakable glass screen. On the other side is a person who says they are about to end their own life (for whatever reason) and that nothing you say will make any difference – and they mean it. You can’t get them out. But there are two drawers connecting through the screen. One has a painless suicide kit and one has some horrible chemicals that will cause an agonising death if used. You can only take one away – which one will you choose?
The argument that, if left with only painful methods, people will not end their lives, does not bear out. People tend to choose the least distressing method they know and that is available. What we, as society, tend to do, is restrict the painless methods. We try to frighten people into staying alive. That, to me, is cruel. Enabling people to do their true wishes, whether by discouraging a ill-thought-out suicide, or by enabling a well-thought-out and ‘rational’ one, is the mark of a moral human being. One day, perhaps our laws will catch up.