Thursday, 25 August 2011

The right model for killing yourself

"Martin" is 46 and has locked in syndrome He's asking the courts to clarify the law so that doctors and other medical staff who might help him end his life would not  be prosecuted.

This is an extension of Debbie Purdy's case, from two years ago. Purdy successfully argued in court that it was a breach of her human rights not to know if her husband would be prosecuted for assisting her suicide if he accompanied her to a clinic in a country where assisted suicide is legal.

"Martin's" case extends this to doctors and other medical staff, rather than lay-people. His wife has accepted his decision, but does not feel able to assist him.

At least 10% of suicides in the UK are by people with a chronic or terminal illness, and coroners believe that people are increasingly killing themselves at a younger age rather than wait until they are in severe pain. Some coroners avoid probing into what they suspect might be a case of assisted suicide, to avoid causing problems for those left behind.

So why do all these people with long-term illnesses feel that the appropriate response to their circumstances is to kill themselves? (Either with or without help). Opinions, inevitably, differ.

Some argue that the decision is made because the condition - the illness, the disability, whatever - has become too much to bear. Others say that these feelings are often because the individual has not had the chance to live as independent a life as possible within society at large.

The individual's condition on one side and society on the other. That sounds very familiar. And yes, it's our old friends the medical and social models of disability again.

Which is more important in an someone's decision whether they want to live or die?  The way their physical disability affects them as an individual, or how easy it is for disabled people to be part of mainstream society?

Just to be upfront, I have no intention (in the foreseeable future) of seeking assisted suicide. But as I've told you in a couple of posts recently, I've been having major problems getting out because of physical problems. At the moment, the accessibility or otherwise of society is kind of irrelevant to me, and my physical impairments are totally primary. At other times, or for other people, the physical problems may be secondary to accessibility, housing problems or employment discrimination.

So overall, I think sometimes the medical model is the right one and sometimes the social model. Or, at least, there's a continuum. At one end is "pure" medical model thinking, at the other end is "pure" social model thinking. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and we move back and forward along the continuum depending on circumstances. (It's made of nice slidey material. Makes it easy.)

The vast majority of us could never kill ourselves, in any circumstances. And if someone is considering it, whether that decision is rational or irrational is a whole other packet of Jaffa cakes. For those few who have decided to seek assisted suicide though, reasons differ. And that fact must be acknowledged by the disability community.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As a person with MS, and running an online community of considerable size and longevity through which other people with MS can reach out to one another, nothing troubles me more than when I hear about a person with MS who has taken their own life because they haven't been given access to clear, unambiguous information about MS at the point of diagnosis that might have cause them to choose to continue with life.

    It's trite to say 'MS is a life sentence, not a death sentence' when of course if often doesn't feel that way, yet I still, 20 years after my own diagnosis, feel that life is worth living, even with MS. I've met so many inspiring people who have extremely severe disability due to MS who have kept up their hobbies and interests that they love by adapting and writing their own rules of engagement and I wish that everyone with MS who has acted on suicidal desires would have had the opportunity to be inspired by these people.

    Alas, so many long-term conditions come with depression as standard and in my personal experience that's one of the most difficult aspects of life with MS... disabling symptoms, plus debilitating depression equals isolation, mentally, emotionally and physically. It takes so much inner strength to keep going but the prize for keeping going can be great (and the prize for stopping, finite).

    I'm inspired every day by other people with MS who've pushed through. Who've reached out to support others with MS when all they felt they wanted to do was give up and hide. This is the lifelong battle for all of us with MS and other LTCs, but there is strength in numbers thanks to the internet, and when I'm struggling, knowing that a mighty army of other people with MS needs me to continue makes the difference in my life. We’re all part of that same army, we all need each other to continue. We can all play a role in helping others with our condition to find a way to embrace life again.

    Thank you for writing this, 'Malteser'*.

    Oh and clever, clever for dropping 'Jaffa Cakes' into the final paragraph to test whether I'd actually read down to the end. You're a canny Scot, 'Maltester'*.

    Julie Howell
    Jooly's Joint

    *name changed to protect the innocent...


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