Suicide has been back in the news recently, with the tale of a non-terminally-ill woman having an assisted suicide and of a video discussing assisted suicide being shown in school philosophy classes. I don't personally see any problem with philosophy classes discussing assisted suicide and euthanasia and watching videos featuring advocates and opponents – surely that's a very relevant philosophical issue for teenagers to debate. But I do still feel that most of the debate on assisted suicide misses the main point.
We are told that if assisted suicide or euthanasia become legal, then sick elderly people that might prefer to hang on for a while will feel pressured into ending their lives so as not to be a burden, or that terminal illness might be mis-diagnosed, or that murders might be disguised as assisted suicides or euthanasia. These are issues, but they are not by any means the main problem with permitting assisted suicide.
The main problem with assisted suicide, as I have written about before, is that if we permit assisted suicide – doubly so if we assert there is any kind of "right" to commit suicide – then we will not be able to sustain society's many invasive suicide prevention methods. At present, if people appear suicidal we lock them up, we tie them in restraints, we drug them, we force them to receive counselling. If we see someone in the process of attempting to commit suicide, we understand ourselves as having a duty to intervene to try to prevent it. We do not accept that people have any kind of right to kill themselves.
And this is not much to do with the elderly or the ill or the disabled. Most people that kill themselves are sad or lonely or ashamed or have lost any sense of meaning to their lives. They aren't sick or old.
This isn't merely a "thin end of the wedge" argument. Suicide is just as wrong for the sick and the old as it is for the sad or lonely or existentially challenged. When I have said previously that suicide is wrong, many commenters have taken offence, claiming that it was cruel to say such a thing to people in terrible circumstances. I don't pretend that telling a suicidal person that suicide is wicked is, in most cases, a particularly useful counselling technique. But I do believe that if, when we were healthy and cheerful and young, we were taught that suicide is wrong – deeply deeply selfish, amongst the worst of all wicked acts (which is how, historically, it was regarded in Britain) – then there would be fewer suicides. If we thought jealousy murder were okay, then there would be more jealousy murders. If we taught young girls that cutting themselves with blades were okay, then more young girls would do it. And if we teach young boys and girls that suicide is okay, more of them will commit suicide. Conversely, if we teach them that it is wrong, fewer of them will do it. It really is as simple as that.
Neither is this merely a theoretical argument. In countries that use assisted suicide, interventions to prevent the non-terminally ill from suicide have tended to break down. In the Netherlands, for example, it has been successfully argued that a woman upset about the death of her small children had a right to an assisted suicide – the court ruled that suffering is suffering, whether psychological or physical. We see the repeated cases of non-terminally ill people that have had assisted suicides in Switzerland. Some euthanasia campaigners claim that they oppose assistance to the non-terminally ill. But there is no logical basis for such a distinction – all of us are going to die eventually, and the differences in the quality of people's lives are so vast (think scabby alcoholic tramp liable to live only months more versus cancer victim with two years left – why should we grant assisted suicide to the latter and not the former?) that once we grant assisted suicide to any, we have no good basis to deny it to any. And once we say that people have a "human right" to commit suicide, then why would a desperately sad person lack that "human right" any more than a person in pain?
The main problem with assisted suicide is that once we grant it, we will not, consistently, be able to sustain the many interventions we currently employ to prevent suicides. And that would be a moral catastrophe.