The right to die

The South Australian Parliament recently knocked back the Death with Dignity Bill introduced by Liberal MP Duncan McFetridge. This was the 15th attempt to legalise voluntary euthanasia in South Australia.

Supporters of the legislation argue that it is inhumane to make people with an incurable medical condition endure unbearable pain when they could be empowered to end their suffering.

Canadian author, Miriam Toews says,

“The core of the argument for assisted suicide is maximising individual autonomy and minimising human suffering.”

As a society, we place great importance on our freedom to choose. Having worked for many years with people who are physically and/or intellectually impaired, I know how they value choice. With the roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the primary emphasis is on choice. “What do you want for your life?”

Choice is a powerful concept. It is the freedom to live your life the way you want to live it. But choice does not come without a price, and that price is responsibility.

If we are going to provide people with the appropriate legislative backing to allow them to enlist the support of others to end their life, we also need to remind them of their responsibility to the wider community. “In what way will your choices and later actions impact on the lives of others?”

War veteran, Benjamin Sledge, has wrestled with the implications of acknowledging “Death with Dignity while knowing first hand that war zones are often littered with undignified deaths. He says,

“But here’s the problem I ran into when I played with the idea of it being okay to take your life if you’re terminal. What kind of message are we sending to our youth in advocating that type of death? Are we not telling them ‘if your situation is hard enough and painful enough, it’s okay to take your life?’ “

Suicide contagion – when one or more suicides contribute to additional suicides – is a well-established phenomenon. Like suicide in general, assisted suicide – its promotion, publicity, and legalisation – is likely to encourage additional suicides.

Paul Stark in his article ‘Assisted suicide and contagion’ says,

“The contagion effect of assisted suicide may be greater than that of regular suicide. That’s because the advocacy, legalisation, and social acceptance of assisted suicide necessarily entail the idea that suicide can be a legitimate option, that it can be a solution to someone’s problems, and that some lives are not worth living.”

Do we want to make suicide socially acceptable?

While a small number of sufferers may welcome the help of a physician to end their life, having ‘Death with Dignity’ encased in law presents an unnecessary and unwanted distraction for many ageing persons and a frightening prospect for people with a profound disability, a mental illness, or dementia.

While we might like to think that we are giving the individual control of their life we are also exposing them to the uninvited or unspoken attitudes of friends and loved ones.

As Charles Colson, founder of Prison fellowship Ministries says,

“The problem is assisted suicide never remains the individual’s decision.”

When someone says they want to die, what are they saying? Are they testing the resolve and commitment of those closest to them? Are they looking for a word of hope and encouragement to negate their feelings of despair? Are they saying, “The struggle is intense, but I’m hoping you will understand that despite what I say, I need you.”

No one disputes the fact that it takes courage to face the final work of dying. But it is wrong to burden the sufferer with life-defining decisions, demanding they weigh up the physical, emotional, and economic cost of prolonging life.

Caring is not always curing. When we offer support to the terminally ill we are saying, “I’ll walk with you no matter what, I’ll stay with you no matter what.” Caring is the compassionate choice, not killing.  Morally, it is improper to equate killing with compassion.

Paul Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine, Monash University, shares his concern about the threat ‘Death with Dignity’ poses to the medical profession. He says,

“Many doctors have expressed concern that legalising assisted killing would undermine the core values of medicine. Shifting the focus from relieving suffering to terminating life might sound like a small step to some, but in reality, it represents a reversal of fundamental precepts.

In medicine, life has never been the disease and death has never been the cure. Rather, the commitment has always been to care for living persons, even in the darkest and most hopeless of circumstances.”

Lyle Shelton, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby offers a more positive narrative about death and dying. He says

“Palliative care is a more prudent and ethical way of ensuring a dignified death than a public policy which is open to abuse and which unwittingly or wittingly puts pressure on the ill and vulnerable to end their lives.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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