The pro-euthanasia lobby often promotes media reports of people facing difficult prognoses who wish to end their lives rather than face inevitable deterioration. Such persons often become, for a short while, celebrities for a macabre cause. The media attention can even become addictive and provide, a distraction from their suffering or a raison d’etre.
But are these stories really a substantive reason for changing the law? I would argue, no.
In a debate in Launceston, Tasmania, a few years back a delightful woman on the other side of the debate told the story of her husband who had motor neurone disease and took his own life rather than face the trajectory of deterioration. She described the understood trajectory of MND in some detail. I imagine that she was describing a worst-case scenario.
One could easily understand the anguish of what her late husband was facing: he was a fascinating person with great achievements. When I met his wife and son I got the sense that he would have been a wonderful person to have met. I imagine the audience that night must have felt the same.
Yet, at the close of the evening when the audience had a chance to speak, a woman rose from the back of the auditorium and said that her husband had recently passed away after suffering with MND. She told the audience that his death was, “nothing like that”, referring, clearly to the earlier description.
More recently I received an email from a gentleman questioning how I could hold my opposition to euthanasia and describing the recent loss of his own mother. He said that she had been bereft of consciousness for the better part of seven years and that her passing was not dignified.
My mother-in-law had been similarly lacking consciousness for much longer than that, as I relayed by return email. Yet Mum had a very dignified passing. My conclusion was simply that his unfortunate experience was not, therefore, an argument for euthanasia at all.
Readers will recall the celebrated pleas of Englishman Tony Nicklinson a few years back which were played out in the British Courts over his wish to die. Nicklinson had locked-in syndrome. Yet at the same time a young man with the same condition told the media that while his life had significant limitations, he had a good life. He wanted to let people know that not all locked-in syndrome sufferers were like Nicklinson.
One can easily understand what might have been the young man’s concerns. If people think that all locked-in sufferers are desperate to die, then perhaps he won’t get the kind of care he would need to live if there were ever a medical emergency. Perhaps he simply wanted people to know that he wasn’t down in the dumps about his accident.
His motivation for speaking out was unclear but nonetheless poignant and timely. I doubt that people like Nicklinson would have considered the effect that their public cause would have on others with the same condition. Their focus is essentially on themselves. Understandable given the circumstances; but nevertheless, not the complete picture.
It is not the illness or the prognosis that is the driver for euthanasia in any of these cases. It has more to do with the person themselves and how they decide to cope with their pending or existing situation. It really is about their choices.
A few months back, another MND sufferer, Paul Chamberlain, became a cause celebre for the assisted suicide campaign in the UK. He was interviewed repeatedly on British media including a joint interview with Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick from the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition – Europe. Once again we find the counter position put by other MND sufferers including former Springbok Rugby player, Joost van der Westhuizen.
“It’s been a rollercoaster from day one and I know I’m on a deathbed from now on. I’ve had my highs and I have had my lows, but no more… It’s only when you go through what I am going through that you understand that life is generous.”
Then there’s the story of Alistair Banks. Throughout his MND and up unto his death he wrote inspiring messages of hope. He said:
“Everyone I know with MND is trying to do positive things, otherwise they would sink into despair. It’s a coping mechanism. Doing things means that you can pull in friends and family to share something both fun and rewarding.”
I have no doubt that some people die better than others, just as people deal with the dying and death of a loved one in many different ways. But these are not arguments for euthanasia. Rather, they suggest that we need to continue to learn better ways of caring and to make sure that quality care is universally available.
Autonomy is a good thing, but should we burden society with a euthanasia or assisted suicide law because some people – probably only a handful in any disease cohort – wish to choose another path? We may have decriminalised suicide, but we should never endorse it. All of humanity is diminished by a law that tells us that some people’s lives are less worthy of life than others. No man is an island.
The heart-wrenching stories of a few are compelling. But as arguments they are false.
Paul Russell is Executive Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide and is Vice Chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International.