‘Suicide is a marvellous possibility for humans’

The founder of the Swiss suicide clinic has unwittingly exposed the misanthropy of today’s ‘right to die’ lobby.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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Ludwig Minelli’s call last week for a more tolerant view of suicide exposed some of the flimsier arguments for changing the law on assisted suicide. And his claim that he, as a provider of assisted deaths, is fighting against paternalism only obscured his own chillingly paternalistic advocacy of suicide.

Minelli is a human rights lawyer who founded the Swiss suicide clinic, Dignitas, in 1998. He gave a rare interview to the BBC which was broadcast last Thursday. In it, Minelli defended the decision by his Swiss clinic to assist the suicide of a healthy Canadian woman who wished to die at the same time as her terminally ill husband.

‘It’s a right, a human right, without condition except capacity of discernment’, he said. ‘I have a totally different attitude to suicide. I say suicide is a marvellous possibility given to a human being.’ He later added: ‘Suicide is a very good possibility to escape a situation which you can’t alter.’

Minelli provocatively argued that suicide represents an economic opportunity for the state, too: ‘For 50 suicide attempts you have one suicide, and the others are failing with heavy costs on the National Health Service. If we would have another attitude to suicide, saying suicide is a very good possibility to escape, [then this wouldn’t be a problem]… In many, many cases, [people who attempt suicide] are terribly hurt afterwards; sometimes you have to put them in institutions for 50 years. Very costly.’

Few have openly agreed with Minelli; there has been no rush to open a Dignitas clinic in the south Wales suicide ‘hotspot’ of Bridgend, and most counsellors in depressed areas will suggest other possibilities to the jobless than taking their own lives and saving the state some money. Many of the more staid right-to-die organisations were quick to condemn Minelli’s views.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: ‘The choice of an assisted death for terminally ill, mentally competent adults should only be available within a framework of strict legal safeguards that protect vulnerable people.’ Former Labour health secretary Patricia Hewitt, who advocated a change in the law on assisted suicide, said Minelli’s comments showed the need for legal changes so that British people would not have to go to his overseas clinic.

However, what is most interesting about Minelli’s views is that they expose a serious flaw in the argument of all assisted suicide advocates, both of the mainstream and more extreme varieties. If we privilege ‘autonomy’ in matters of death and disease, then where do we draw the line?

Minelli is surely right to say it is ‘paternalistic’ to insist on a series of safeguards in relation to the ‘right to die’, and to argue that there is no real reason why society should grant that ‘right’ to those with six months to live while denying it to others. Either we have ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’ and the ‘right’ to decide when to die or we have a paternalistic authority that tells some people their lives are worthless and that suicide is a good idea while belittling the problems faced by others who express suicidal thoughts.

As Minelli would no doubt agree, paternalistic judgements on who may die and who may not point to the existence of a nanny state, which declares that all of those without terminal illnesses are simply ‘vulnerable’ and denies them their ‘right to die’. This is insulting, not only to those sick people whose lives are judged to be worthless enough to suggest suicide as a therapeutic answer, but also to those non-sick people with suicidal feelings whose own assessments of their lives are judged to be meaningless. Under the proposed legislation, only the government, rather than individuals themselves, can stamp ‘worthless’ and thus a ‘candidate for suicide’ upon a person.

However, Minelli’s commitment to ‘autonomy’ is entirely false. Because the truth is that all of us already have the so-called right to die. All may commit suicide quite legally in the UK. No, this debate is really about whether to help the suicidal by holding their heads under the water or giving them a push over the precipice. What Minelli represents is quite literally a counsel of despair. His clinic – and the ‘right to die’ movement in general – represents an advocacy of suicide.

To the depressed, those who feel they are worthless and that their continued existence is pointless, Minelli (and Hewitt, only with a few ‘safeguards to protect the vulnerable’) answer: ‘Yes, you’d be far better off dead. And, if you are unsure enough to do it yourself, we’ll help to kill you.’

For all of Minelli’s protestations to the contrary, he represents a frightening vision of a Big Brother that not only counsels death but actively pushes it. This is a Big Brother which sees no value in the continued existence of its own citizens, which suggests that nothingness is better than human life, and which projects its own hopelessness on to those looking for answers.

For his clarification of the real end of the assisted suicide movement – advocacy of suicide in general – we should thank Minelli. He has unwittingly exposed the dark truth. Unfortunately, in an age when human life is seen as despoliation of the Earth and non-existence is often seen as more desirable than existence, Minelli’s message may have some appeal; humanists should challenge it and the pro-suicide lobby more broadly.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Previously on spiked

spiked hosted a dignified debate about death. Kevin Yuill wondered if politics has become about pursuing the good death. Elsewhere he deplored the public parading of a severely disfigured French woman who wanted the ‘right to die’. He felt the case of Colin Norris indicated the devaluation of old people’s lives. He said no thanks to the ‘right to die’ and argued that those supporting euthanasia gave cultural approval to suicide. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death, while Brendan O’Neill peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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