“to keep someone alive against their wishes is the ultimate indignity”
-Stephen Hawking
Helen Joyce The Right to Die

Over the weekend I attended a talk by Dr Helen Joyce at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas Sydney (#fodi), called The Right to Die. This surprisingly uplifting speech about euthanasia and assisted suicide became the highlight of my gloomy Sunday.

Dr Helen Joyce is an editor for the international section of The Economist. Apart from being superbly diplomatic about a sensitive topic, she carried the burden of a heavy subject with proportionately-timed humour. Joyce’s speech (embedded below) provide facts to address why assisted suicide should be legal, reminding us just how important it is to our society.

Personally I have always been quick to respond ‘here here’ when the topic of Euthanasia arises. The idea of dignity as a choice always made most sense, other than that I hadn’t given the matter much thought. Without much research into the topic; the untimely passing of a close friend and the circumstancial proceedings of the event; really forced me to question why our society would care to restrict an individual’s freedom to life and death. I’m doubtful there are any of us who hasn’t felt the sense of loss, lack of closure and draining of emotions when anticipating these inevitable moments.

I feel that Joyce’s speech has exposed me to some deeply ingrained issues in our society which I have not considered until this point. You as the reader may have a different opinion on this topic. Maybe I can change your mind or maybe you can change mine, nonetheless I feel the need to share what I’ve learned. The speech is embedded below and here is a quick summary of the difference between assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia.

Assisted Suicide and its association with agony

Joyce spoke about how many people she conversed with view assisted suicide as a simpler way to avoid agony. Often the argument against this, is that modern medicine is effective enough to combat pain, but for the terminally ill, Joyce argues that the physical suffering is only the tip of the iceberg. ‘Existential suffering,’ she points out, was equally important on a humane level. She spoke of those in hospices who are well cared for, but go on to say that many still consider the idea of assisted suicide (I use the word ‘idea’ because in Australia, this is legally neither an option nor right). Whether or not these people are in some sort of physical pain, I believe if they are mentally competent enough to question their existence, they deserve the right to decide to pass with dignity.

 

Doctors’ indirect participation in Assisted Suicide

Call it what you please, but terminal sedation, increased dosage of pain medication or withdrawing treatment are all part of unspoken participation in assisted suicide. I have experienced this first hand and between a rock and a hard place, I am personally grateful for such actions and I believe that many, if not most loved ones would. Sadly in a society like ours, assistance in alleviating pain for sufferers and their loved ones is not legal, thus immense pressure is added to loved ones and medical professional in times of difficult decisions and grief.

 

Many support voluntary euthanasia… until they are forced to really have to think about it.

An interesting point Joyce made during the talk, is that in casual conversation most people claim to support the idea; making cracks about ‘being put down’ and asking people to ‘shoot me if I ever get to that point.’ However when the topic drifts to cases of terminally ill children or severe non-transient mental illness sufferers, people begin to sway uncomfortably away from the topic.

 

What about children?

Don’t children deserve the same rights we do? I am not really comfortable with this topic myself, but where can you draw the line? We as humans cannot bear the thought of ending a child’s life prematurely, but should a child have to suffer longer for our inability to make hard decisions? Maybe you disagree but the Dan James story might change your mind.

 

Mental Illness and normalising suicide

This is the toughest one for me. As a stern believer of self-help with a stubborn saviour mentality, I am deeply conflicted. Even in areas which allows assisted suicide such as ‘death with dignity’ often becomes questionable when mental illness is involved. In Oregon for assisted suicide to take place, patients are assessed based on their mental health. Joyce questioned the definitions of physical and mental sufferring, concluding that they are not mutually exclusive. Can physical suffering really exist without mental suffering? If one is in agony how can they be in a good place mentally? Henceforth how can anyone judge whether they are mentally fit for assisted death?

 

Politics

When asked about the main roadblock Australia faces with the legalities of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Dr Joyce’s response was succinct, “political cowardlyness” pretty much sums it up.

 

Advance Care Directive

On a separate topic, whether it’s assisted suicide or organ donations, I think this is something worth thinking about, in difficult times having expressed wishes available will make those difficult decisions that much easier for your loved ones. I once knew an amazing lady who suffered from Cystic Fibrosis. She was an advocate for ACD take some time to read her story and make some contributions to CF Australia if you please.

 

There is so much gray area to consider when making an informed decision about our right to die and I may have walked into the Opera House with a stronger belief in it than when I walked out. I did however, walked convinced that we as people deserve a choice in the matter.

To end on a brighter note:

“Making it better, not just easier”  – Dr Helen Joyce (on death)

 

Some links for further research:

The Economist: Doctor’s Assisted Dying – A Patient’s Right
Australian Human Rights Commission: Human Rights and Euthanasia
Right to Life Australia – Euthanasia

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