It is a common that immediately a suggestion is raised that someone is being “denied” something, we will feel a mild sense of outrage growing inside us. “How dare they!”
The aspirational coffin: for the time
when nothings matters so much as style.
But it’s a loaded question. “Choices” are not always possible, no matter how beneficent they may be; no matter how legitimate they may seem.
To suggest, therefore, that people are “denied choices” is to infer that such “choices” are, indeed, legitimate.
Some, of course, are a simple matter of choosing between one legitimate option and another. Some, but not all.
A little while ago, I attended the funeral service for my brother’s father-in-law. An impressive, staunchly working-class man, he had died well. That, for most of us, is what it is all about: we live as well as we can and we die as well as we can. We take both life and death as it comes.
That is not to say that we can’t do better; of course we can. We share a mutual debt, one to another, through what we call society, to improve how we care for people at the life’s end.
The “choice” that floored me about this fine man was not in his care but rather in his choice of music for his funeral service. Walking past his coffin to pay our respects as the song, Gangnam Style, was playing was, well, a unique experience. Strangely, after the initial shock, I realised how fitting it was for a man who was constantly making people laugh and who never failed to hold a cheeky twinkle in his eye.
His was not a church funeral. I can imagine that, had he chosen a religious service, he might have been denied his wish to go out to the beat of that short-lived dance craze. Competing interests: a “choice” versus a protocol.
Limits to choice are set everywhere around us. I would agree with the libertarian view that limits to choice should be as few as possible. But we need to be mindful of that old saying: before one moves to knock down a fence, a wise person stops to wonder why it was put there in the first place.
When it comes to euthanasia and assisted suicide, the “fence” is the criminal code prohibitions on killing another person or in helping someone to suicide, respectively. These are prohibitions that have existed since our laws were written and previously, in antiquity, were taken as the laws of nature. We make choices of our own when considering these issues: do we allow ourselves to be swayed by the emotive claims of a “denial of choice” or do we decide, acknowledging the emotional, to think a little harder. These laws have been around for a long time.
The emotional case is strongly put through the media. The stories of people who are facing a difficult prognosis are heart-rending; they demand our attention. The fact that, like my brother’s father-in-law, most of us will die as well as we can with good support and medical attention is rarely news.
Harsh as it may seem, most of the stories we hear in the press are from an elite; well-to-do folk with higher than average education and out of the ordinary life experiences who are supported, often, by a lobby that my American friends refer to as the “four Ws”: white, well off, well and worried.
When parts of the Australian media recently applauded the double suicide of a well-travelled, well-educated Melbourne couple who were not ill but simply growing old, I think we all need to stop and wonder where this is all going.
Don’t read me wrong; they have every right to put their case and to tell their stories. But they are not “most of us”. The polls may show soft support for a law change, granted; but polls don’t tell us anything other than the fact that most people feel emotionally disposed to want somehow to help people in difficult circumstances. To that, we all raise our hands.
If it were simply a matter of making sure that the best of care was made available for all but somehow also catering for the choices of this elite, maybe most of us would agree. Life is not simple; neither is this question simply about allowing for a choice to be made dead. There’s much more to it than that; most of which is about consequences and risks.
What if it were not really our choice at all? It’s not. We can ask for many things from our doctor; we can make legitimate choices, where possible, between treatments and even the choice to refuse treatments. But if we ask to be made dead, we’re really asking our doctor to make a choice to kill us or to help us to kill ourselves. In reality, it is his or her choice, not ours, and it comes with consequences.
That choice involves a value judgement. It requires the doctor, consciously or otherwise, to be in agreement with you or me that our lives are no longer worth living; that whatever it is that ails us, our worth as a human person is diminished to the point that “dead” is better than living.
Paul Russell is executive director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide (NoEuthanasia.org.au), and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International.