LIFE ISSUES: by Paul RussellNews Weekly
A poor prognosis is not an argument for euthanasia
, April 12, 2014
The pro-euthanasia lobby often promotes — or, at the very least, piggybacks upon — media reports of people facing difficult prognoses who want to end their lives rather than face the prospect of deterioration and all the difficulty that such an outcome may visit upon them.
Such persons often become, for a short while, celebrities for a macabre cause. Whether intentional or not, the media focus itself can become addictive and, if they are genuinely attached to their cause, it can provide, I imagine, something of a distraction or a “reason for living”, if that is not too crude a phrase in such circumstances.
But do these difficulties and their circumstances really make for a substantive reason for changing the law? I would argue not.
In a debate in Launceston, Tasmania, a few years back, a delightful woman on the opposite side of the debate told the story of her husband who had motor neurone disease (MND) and took his own life rather than face the prospect of deterioration. She described the understood trajectory of MND in some detail. I imagine, although I can’t confirm it, that what she described was likely to have been the worst-case scenario.
One could easily understand the anguish of what her late husband was facing: he was a fascinating person of great achievement. Through my meeting his wife and son, I certainly got the sense that he would have been a wonderful person to have met. I imagine the audience that night would have felt likewise.
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 first woman’s earlier description.
More recently, I received an email from a gentleman questioning how I could maintain my opposition to euthanasia and describing the recent loss of his own mother. He said that for the better part of seven years she had been bereft of consciousness, and that her passing was not dignified.
My own mother-in-law had been similarly lacking consciousness for much longer than that, as I relayed by return email. Yet she had a very dignified passing. My conclusion was simply that this man’s 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, that were played out in the British courts over his wish to die. Nicklinson suffered from locked-in syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterised by complete paralysis of voluntary muscles in all parts of the body except for those that control eye movement.
Yet, during the media hubbub over this case, a young man with the same condition saw fit to tell the British public, through the media, that while his life had significant limitations, he nevertheless felt he had a good life and 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 are misled into believing that all locked-in syndrome sufferers are desperate to die, then perhaps, in the event of a medical emergency, he won’t get the kind of care he would need to live. Or 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 such as Nicklinson would have considered the effect their public support for assisted suicide could 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 motive for euthanasia in any of these cases. It has more to do with the persons 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 something of a cause célèbre 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 (EPC-Europe).
Once again we find the contrary view put by other MND sufferers, including former Springbok rugby-player, Joost van der Westhuizen, 42, and married with two children. He said: “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, 40, and married with two small children. Throughout the duration of his MND, and up until 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.”
The following quotation from Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing (UK), summarises my point: “The overwhelming vast majority of people with diseases like motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease — or even locked-in syndrome for that matter — do not wish to end their lives.”
So, clearly, we’re not — or rather should not be — considering changing the law simply because some people, for their own reasons, have decided that “enough is enough”. Analogies abound, but for the sake of decorum I’ll simply leave the reader to consider.
The same is true for those, like my correspondent, who have witnessed the death of a loved one and who claim, based on their personal experience, that the law needs changing. 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. Again, 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.
No-one is denying that death and dying are difficult experiences for everyone concerned. Even for those who die a “good death”, grieving for their loss still remains as do the images of the loved one in those final days and hours.
But what we are really seeing here — particularly with the celebrity cases of people who want death rather than their disease — is about a personal choice. Autonomy, broadly speaking, is a good thing. But should we be creating what would essentially be an impost of euthanasia or assisted suicide law upon society at large, because some people — probably only a handful in any disease cohort — want to choose this path?
It is not up to society to give licence to such choices. We may have decriminalised suicide, but we should never endorse it.
Nor would creating a special law making a provision for these few leave the rest of society untouched by its effects. Such laws directly affect the autonomy of others and the rights of others to receive good care, support and just treatment without the spectre of euthanasia. All of humanity is diminished by the very existence of a law that implicitly tells us that some people’s lives are less worthy of life than others. No man is an island.
The argument for euthanasia and assisted suicide, based upon the heart-wrenching stories of a few, may seem to be compelling, and certainly they make for good copy for current-affairs programs. But they are false arguments.
If not, then we must consider euthanasia as being solely about eliminating suffering for individuals — in other words, entirely subjective and defined only by the person who chooses such an end.
If that were the case, then any arguments for “stringent safeguards”, or for limiting who might have access to euthanasia, are totally meaningless and any attempt to contain the incidence of euthanasia, farcical.
Paul Russell is executive director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide www.noeuthanasia.org.au, and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) International. He blogs at http://blog.noeuthanasia.org.au
Alex Schadenberg, “Court of Appeal in Britain upholds lower court ruling, protecting UK citizens from euthanasia”, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, August 1, 2013.
Sophy Ridge, “Thinking aloud: assisted suicide debate”, Sky News (UK), July 26, 2013.
“Springbok hero dying from MND”, Care Not Killing (UK), August 29, 2013.
Peter Saunders, “Alistair Banks: courage in the face of motor neurone disease”, CMF Blogs (Christian Medical Fellowship, UK), July 27, 2011.