The question of “assisted dying” is again on the agenda, and our Local State Member has rightly asked our opinion about it before a Bill goes before the Parliament later this year. As a person considered by many as personifying the religious, some will have already decided that my opinion is unworthy of consideration, perhaps assuming that I have not thought about the issue from other perspectives, or have not experienced such questions first hand, or that I can contribute nothing new and unbiased to the discussion. I would challenge all three assumptions.
Most reasonable people would acknowledge that my day to day experience gives me more exposure to this issue than most, but on a much more personal level, I have observed the impact of ongoing chronic pain on a loved one over many years, and over the last few years I watched my Dad decline due to prostate and skin cancer before he died in March last year. In these situations, as hard as they are, I am grateful for the contributions made by these people. My lack up to this point is that I have thankfully not been the one considering assisted dying as an option for myself, and I acknowledge that lack with some humility. However, I do wonder if we have consistently missed one crucial and challenging aspect of this discussion, that is, what drives the perception of assisted dying as a positive option.
In my experience, the most common reasons that people give for wanting to end their own lives are as follows: pain, a loss of dignity, being a burden to others and relatedly, of having no value. We know that medically, at least in the majority of palliative cases, we can manage pain so long as medications are carefully administered and adequately monitored. If the experience of pain is the principal driving factor in the positive case for assisted dying, then it must be rejected in most situations.
The final three reasons are much more difficult to confront because they entail a different kind of suffering, a mental anguish that will not be easily helped by the administration of medication. Here though, is my question; would a person seek to end their life if they had dignity? If they had value? And if they felt no guilt about the impact their palliative situation had on others? I would be bold enough as to suggest that very few indeed would even consider it. And here is the thing, all of those feelings come from the outside.
We convey feelings of dignity (or not) to those we interact with. We convey feelings of value, and it can be us who allow someone to feel that we are burdened, inconvenienced, and discomforted by their situation. We don’t usually do this intentionally, but we do it as a society and unconsciously by holding out only the young, strong, active and attractive as having dignity, value and something to contribute.
What if we took a different road and showed people our love by how we spent our time and our money, as family members, as politicians and as a society? What if we changed the narrative so that caring for others became more important than comfort and convenience for ourselves? What if we became comfortable even in the midst of a suffering persons discomfort? Could it be that in the vast majority of cases assisted dying could be seen as a vastly inferior alternative to an outworking of self-giving, value-building, care?