Last week I cast my vote in the NSW election. Coming from Canberra it was a shock to see a ballot form a metre long with dozens of names. The real shock, however, was being approached by a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Party to show my support for the introduction of voluntary euthanasia in NSW. She was in her 70s and sincerely committed to the cause. Her husband had suffered a ‘bad death’ and she was determined that no one else should suffer in the same manner. I raised a couple of counter points, but she wasn’t persuaded and I was left feeling the callous one for not supporting her cause.
She was in her 70s and sincerely committed to the cause. Her husband had suffered a ‘bad death’ and she was determined that no one else should suffer in the same manner. I was left feeling the callous one for not supporting her cause.
It’s a difficult and emotional issue, rapidly becoming a feature of our new world. Voluntary euthanasia is a personal, heart wrenching matter. At times it has been too close to the bone. It brought to mind a conversation in our home a few years back. A friend was arguing that not only should voluntary euthanasia be legalised, but that doctors should be legally bound to offer it when asked. My wife, being a doctor, was horrified by the thought. Whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath? And I, being a terminally ill cancer patient, wasn’t feeling too comfortable with the intensity or insensitivity of the conversation either! Where do we turn for help and insights to understand and consider these issues?
Let me recommend Assisted Suicide by Vaughan Roberts in the Talking Points series. Though I will say, it’s a hard book to read. It’s not difficult to understand, or poorly written, or even that long. It’s clear, logical, and helpful. But the issues cut deeply and it’s not a simple topic to wrap your mind and heart around.
Assisted Suicide introduces the reader to terms and ideas to build their awareness of the topic. But it also engages with the emotion that drives these discussions. It’s no small thing for someone to want to take their own life. And it’s no small thing to contemplate assisting another person to do this. The issues are very deep and very raw. Over the past few years I believe that I’ve increased in empathy for people who might contemplate such a step. The world of cancer, overwhelming pain, harsh treatments, no hope of a cure, massive financial burdens, impact on wider friends and family, the ugly reality of feeling like there is no point living, and that you are only a burden, takes people down this route. I’m not describing my own personal feelings, but I sense the deep angst experienced by others.
The arguments for assisted suicide are complex. They cross relational, psychological, medical, moral, philosophical, theological, economic, and human rights boundaries. Most significantly they cannot remain theoretical and intellectual matters because they impact people’s lives and deaths. This alerts us to some of the problems talking with one another about the topic. One person may be driven by the pain of a loved one, while another is concerned about precedents and dangers, another with the ethical implications, or another the pragmatics of an ageing population with increasing health issues. We must listen and listen carefully to each other as we grapple with the issues. It’s too easy to talk across each other without any real understanding.
More than Good Dying
Our religious beliefs will necessarily come into play. If I believe that death is not the end (as I do) and that there’s a resurrection and judgment beyond the grave, then I must consider more than eu-thanasia or good dying. If I believe in the capacity of people to act selfishly (and I do), then I must consider how to protect the vulnerable, elderly, and terminally ill from selfish decisions to ‘remove’ an inconvenient burden. If I believe in the inherent worth of every human being as specially created in the image of God (as I do) then I will not measure the value of a person in terms of their utility or costs to society. And I am persuaded that my life is not my own to dispose of, as I see fit. If I believe in the limits of human knowledge and our propensity to act on impulse (and I sure do), then I will be very cautious before making such a massive decision as to take my own life, or ask someone to assist me, because of a terminal diagnosis. After all, I was given around a year to live and I’ve now lived for more than seven. Doctors and others only make predictions. They don’t have crystal balls.
When people are dying the issues are complex and deeply charged, so it’s worth thinking through what you believe, and why, in the cool light of day. This book offers talking points, but before that it offers thinking points. I recommend thinking over them. It’s a brief book and only an introduction to a massive topic. This will be enough for some. Others will want to delve more deeply into the issues. Assisted Suicide offers a Christian framework for the journey. If you are a Christian then I suggest you read it, preferably with others. If you’re not, then you will still benefit by considering the issues raised by Roberts. We all need informed minds as we consider this massive issue.
Personally, I believe it’s a massive mistake for a society to legalise, support or promote assisted suicide. There are plenty of options for helping people to die well, without helping them kill themselves. This is a time for love and care in life, rather than taking the life away. And far more consideration should be given to what comes afterwards.
Adapted from an article that first appeared on macarisms.com