The conflicting views on suicide in civil society

My heart went out to the parents of Dan James, who took him to die at a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland.

Dan was a promising young rugby player who was left a tetraplegic after a training accident. He had tried to commit suicide several times before.

My teenage brother also made a number of failed suicide attempts before finally letting go of life. Having seen the pain that my brother went through - which no living being should have to experience - I would have done the same as Dan's parents, had I been put in the same position. No question about that, apart from my courage to actually go through with assisting a decision made by someone I love.

Although questions related to suicide and assisted dying are dark, even taboo subjects, it is a sign of the strength of civil society that it does not shrink from them. The fact that organisations sometimes offer starkly differing approaches is evidence of disagreement and dissent, but also of their essential humanity.

Contrast Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for a change in the law to allow medically assisted dying, with disability campaigners who argue this is a slippery slope to certain disabilities being viewed as terminal illnesses. Then factor in those who argue that the term 'assisted dying' is a euphemism for humans playing god, violating the sanctity of life. And one must not forget the Samaritans, who dare to ask their callers "are you feeling suicidal?" yet whose vision is a society with fewer suicides.

Many of these organisations and campaigners coexist in the tent of civil society. And it is civil society precisely because the dialogue - even when it's about life and death - should be civil. Yet, despite seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints about assisted dying, those engaged with end-of-life issues have one thing in common. They become volunteers, counsellors or campaigners not to improve their CVs or to get on in life, but because they can literally do no other.

Whatever viewpoint they take, the cornerstone of their work is compassion - not compassion for suffering but compassion for the excruciatingly difficult decisions that individuals and families have to make. Thinking of Dan James, my brother and the fragility of life makes me rejoice for their helping hands. All of them.

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite and writes in a personal capacity.

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