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Whose life is it anyway?

By Janine Gebert

Thirteen years ago I had to dress my 30 year old daughter for her funeral. She had survived a battle with cancer but not with the subsequent depression. Her trademark porcelain skin looked beautiful. I asked the funeral people not to put makeup on her. The horror I felt when I saw her in the open coffin before the service still haunts me, alongside the guilt and blame of all parents who lose a child to suicide. Her skin was orange brown, and her lips were more orange.

The funeral director explained that people don’t like to see dead people looking dead. So they made my child look nothing like herself.

I have since pondered this lobotomized unwillingness to confront death and the resulting societal evasions that continue to inhibit intelligent dialogue about end of life choices in Australia. In earlier times both sex and death were seen as relatively unencumbered. But Christianity bought the need to exert control over people’s marital beds, and now their death beds. Not just those who accept that life and death belong to a supernatural deity. Everybody’s.

Why do some people feel righteously entitled to tell other people how to die? Most people in Australia now have a say over how they live and whom they love. Death remains the last threshold of permissible interference, largely on the premise that religion trumps reform, and conservative politicians have the right to romanticize unfathomable pain in the name of suffering.

Unhappiness and depression were considered relatively circumstantial in times past. The Greeks elevated the concept of a good death to a worthy goal, and suicide was preferable to shame or pain. But perpetual happiness is the product that affluent societies have to sell. People choosing to die challenge the advertising that all life is good, and therefore, like everything else, more is better. How dare we affront this lie and take our lives into our own hands!

The voluntary euthanasia ‘debate’ is a graphic procession of people missing the point. No one is trying to legislate for community murder. This is about the fundamental right of a sane adult person to judge for themselves when they have had enough. And if this is unpalatable to some, maybe they need to examine what gives them the right to move uninvited into someone else’s dying and shove their beliefs around.

Because the fact is, that some people are in so much physical or emotional pain, for so long, or their lives so relentlessly bleak, that taking it is both courageous and sensible. But such sentiments are seen as dangerously subversive to the interests of a euphorically optimistic battery of service providers from psychologists to case workers.

I know from shattering personal experience that we need to have a much better holistic approach to mental health. Every young person lost to suicide is a largely preventable tragedy, due in part to meagre health services and abundant ignorance. But just as tragic is the number of men over 80 who hang themselves, the elderly women in nursing homes trying to stockpile drugs, police raiding elderly people late at night to search for the drug Nembutal, or harassing bereaved family members after an elderly person has ‘self-exited’.

My dementia-anguished mother sagely said that there is life lived, life remaining, and finally, time on. The medicalisation and extension of the dying process is for some of us an unwelcome and protracted exercise in forced harm. Depression in the elderly seems to be either under diagnosed or wrongly diagnosed. People who experience ‘tired of life syndrome’ are labelled selfish and told they should have had children or do more volunteer work. People live their lives in different ways and at different rates, and for some, interest in life is shorter than its duration.

It may well be yet another luxury of developed countries to survive life long enough to feel tired of it, but I doubt it. I think it is a sensible preparation for death even if you are not ill; a self-knowledge that you have done your best and now you are done. Your body gets tired, your friends are mostly dead, conversations are agonizingly familiar and the television sucks.

We need to stop letting the fundamentalists hijack this crucial debate and marinate it in fear. To claim that the elderly and the disabled will be bumped off is ludicrous, and demeans them and their families. We get old, not stupid. Most people are not flanked by grasping offspring and malicious careers. Bad people have always done bad things to vulnerable people and it has nothing to do with voluntary euthanasia.

The slippery slope argument is always the last bastion of the far right, whose ideas are so rusted on they couldn’t budge a centimeter let alone glide down anything. Remember when abortion was first decriminalized in some states? The cries of some that women would not only be lining up to have their bodies assaulted and their hearts ripped out, but they would be forced to have abortions against their will. People against abortion strove, and still do, to impose their will on others. The elevation of a personal belief, or unsubstantiated doctrine, to a societal command is the most arrogant sin of all, and has no place in a modern democracy.

Most adversaries change their position on voluntary euthanasia when they see a loved one suffer and are powerless to help. Honest palliative care specialists are upfront about their medical limitations and legal constraints. Suicide is no longer illegal in Australia, but assisting someone is. It is the only case in law I think where assisting someone to do something legal is a crime. Yet sentencing someone to choke to death on their own faeces is somehow legitimized humanity.

The fact that gets little oxygen is that access to voluntary euthanasia can also extend life. Many people with the means to a peaceful end never access it. Erasing the fear of pain can help people manage it better. And people with diseases like Motor Neuron sometimes feel compelled to end their lives before they are ready, for to wait until they need help can make a loved one complicit in their death and facing prison.

The Victorian State Government has shown leadership with an Inquiry into end of life choices. This election I ask people to consider whether your Federal member is representing your view on this matter, or their religion. The Voluntary Euthanasia Party is also standing candidates in some seats. For whilst I respect the fact that religious people believe their life is in the hands of their God/s, they need to respect that the safest place for my life is in my own hands.

 

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16 comments

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  1. FED UP

    Each person is different and in the end it should be our choice on how to die. Politicians should have no right to interfere in this issue. I totally agree with you. They take just about every right from you have whilst living, at least have the decency to let people choose the way they wish to leave. But then again, don’t be at all surprised if they bring in a suicide tax! Wouldn’t put it past any politician in this country today!

  2. Tracie

    This is so true. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you have said. I haven’t had enough of this world yet, but it should be my choice when I do, and not someone else’s. I’ve had enough of the fact that these politicians and others want to control our lives, when they can’t even control their own.

  3. townsvilleblog

    I wholeheartedly agree with both previous comments and please accept my deepest sympathy for the loss of your daughter. If I lost mine it would kill me too.

  4. Athena

    Janine, I am so sorry for your loss and I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written.

    It’s not just religious people who have difficulty accepting death. I’ve had this discussion with non-believers too and they consider it just isn’t fair on those left behind when someone chooses to take their own life. So what they are basically saying is that their feelings are more important than the person who is suffering. Personally, no matter how much I would miss that person when they are gone, I feel that I have no right to insist that a person in pain, whether physical or psychological, lives when they would rather not. The greater pain to me is seeing their pain.

  5. Steve Laing - makeourvoiceheard.com

    I too despair at those whose elevation of the right to life over anything else often clouds any empathy they might have. And in part, the way we deal with death, and remembrance, does nothing to change this. Recognising the reality of death might help people discuss it with euphemisms and in dulled tones, but it is what it is, unavoidable and terminal. The Mexicans, with their Day of the Dead I think are on to something – a set day to remember and celebrate the lives of people that were part of our lives, and whom they miss. Better to do it on a set day than on their birthday, or the day of their death. And indeed better to have that day but once a year than on every event which unfortunately get more regular the older we get.

    My own mother is now in the terminal stages of Parkinsons having suffered it now for nearly 20 years (but which is still a drawn out process). Her quality of life is poorer by the day, but it is clear she wishes to continue on. And that is her choice. There may come a point where the suffering is too much, and the thought that she cannot die as she might wish due to a physical incapability would seem to me to be the final cruelty.

  6. kerri

    Wow! Janine, you have hit on so many issues close to my soul!! 22 years ago my 39yo sister lay dying from secondary cancers borne of the breast cancer she first contracted at 25. I have a constant reminder of how long since she passed as my youngest daughter was born a mere 5 months prior to Toni’s demise. In fact I used my young daughter as a reason to relieve my mother of deathwatch once a week!
    Whilst I visited my dying sister I asked my mum to babysit my two little girls. I knew it gave her some relief whilst sitting by the bed of my heavily sedated sister whose only resurfacing into the world of the living drew from her a disgust at her survival and often a plea to end her misery! My parents now are both well in their eighties and have both expressed a desire or fear of taking their own lives. ( this is of course impossible as nursing homes keep a close eye on residents and the elderly at home are rarely prescribed enough to end their life)
    I am a pragmatist! Whilst I would miss them I would not miss the life they currently live and neither would they. My sister lay dying in excruciating pain while the ascites (fluid build up in her abdomen) slowly crushed her stomach, lungs and other organs when her heart remained strong and resilient against all odds and her doctor remained too stubbornly catholic to even recognise that a saline drip was pointless in a person whose fluid build up was killing them.
    We all wished her dead, not the least because she wished herself dead and said so at every opportunity. Euthanasia is a merciful release for those unable to take their own lives. Anyone who regards Assisted dying as a means to get rid of your oldies and inherit their wealth is at best stupid, at worst Machiavellian in pushing your own ideals. My parents have little to leave us and I suspect most are in a similar position given lifespan is longer and offspring have achieved their goals in terms of house childreWow! Janine, you have hit on so many issues close to my soul!! 22 years ago my 39yo sister lay dying from secondary cancers borne of the breast cancer she first contracted at 25. I have a constant reminder of how long since she passed as my youngest daughter was born a mere 5 months prior to Toni’s demise. In fact I used my young daughter as a reason to relieve my mother of deathwatch once a week!
    Whilst I visited my dying sister I asked my mum to babysit my two little girls. I knew it gave her some relief whilst sitting by the bed of my heavily sedated sister whose only resurfacing into the world of the living drew from her a disgust at her survival and often a plea to end her misery! My parents now are both well in their eighties and have both expressed a desire or fear of taking their own lives. ( this is of course impossible as nursing homes keep a close eye on residents and the elderly at home are rarely prescribed enough to end their life)
    I am a pragmatist! Whilst I would miss them I would not miss the life they currently live and neither would they. My sister lay dying in excruciating pain while the ascites (fluid build up in her abdomen) slowly crushed her stomach, lungs and other organs when her heart remained strong and resilient against all odds and her doctor remained too stubbornly catholic to even recognise that a saline drip was pointless in a person whose fluid build up was killing them.
    We all wished her dead, not the least because she wished herself dead and said so at every opportunity. Euthanasia is a merciful release for those unable to take their own lives. Anyone who regards Assisted dying as a means to get rid of your oldies and inherit their wealth is at best stupid, at worst Machiavellian in pushing your own ideals. My parents have little to leave us and I suspect most are in a similar position given lifespan is longer and offspring have achieved their goals in terms of house children’s education etc before the demise of their parents! My kids are still at home but both in their twenties. We want for nothing.
    My parents struggle on with nothing of interest in their lives and unfortunately, none of their remaining 3 kids have of old age, ignorant to the fact that I am already in their grip. Assisted dying is a form of civilised relief that many are way too idealogically stricken to accept. Dr Karen Hitchcock, who seriously pushes so many of my buttons on this issue, claims we don’t value our elderly!? I value my parents but can see that their worth is wasted in bodies than cannot allow them to draw any benefit from their experience and knowledge. Don’t misunderstand me? Both of my parents are still as sharp as they ever were, but are both too tired to learn the new aspects of today’s world, and I have to say I find myself agreeing with them as I grow more tired of the daily struggle to balance learning with self care. As a westernised, advanced society we have extended the lives of our citizens simply because we can. We have not taken the time to regard whether we should extend human life beyond its natural timespan. A life libed in a body that simply exists is hardly a life worth living. If you wish to end your life prematurely, before you enter the realms of a life over which you have no personal control, then you will probably be ending your life way too soon!
    Is it such a bad thing to ask fir the help if your loved ones when life becomes too hard??
    Is it such a bad thing to allow our elderly or infirm to have some choice in their end of life when they are physically beyond taking charge themselves??
    Is it really a measure of how uncivilised we have become, that we would dare to put those suffering out of their misery???

  7. Jane Salmon

    Needs saying often Janine.

    Thank you for sharing your insights.

  8. Geoff Cutts

    Agree entirely, Janine, as you well know. However, you will probably also know that logic and reason [and perhaps empathy] are unknown terms to so many in those religious and political circles that have so much control over our lives, and deaths.

  9. jim

    For whilst I respect the fact that religious people believe their life is in the hands of their God/s, they need to respect that the safest place for my life is in my own hands.Answer “God”which ever which God.Vote Liberal and push up the suicide rate,,,,,Shaw and her colleagues found that on average, suicide rates were 17 per cent higher when the Conservatives were in power, compared to the annual average of 103 suicides per million population when opposition parties held office.

    Richard Taylor and his team in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney found similar trends over the past century in New South Wales. When Right-wing governments were in power, men were 17 per cent more likely and women 40 per cent more likely to commit suicide.

    They report that rates were highest whenever Right wing governments held power both at federal and state levels.

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2817-right-wing-governments-increase-suicide-rates/

  10. Athena

    That’s very insensitive Jim. No one should be advocating making people feel so depressed and hopeless that they are compelled to take their own lives. That is very different from someone being terminally ill and wanting to relieve their pain.

  11. Roy

    I plan to Kill myself if The Liberals get voted back in. Had Enough !

  12. Athena

    Oh come on people! The author of this article lost a daughter to suicide due to depression. Stop being so inconsiderate.

  13. Pingback: Whose life is it anyway? – The AIM Network via #AusPol – #AusPoll

  14. Rotha

    A daughter lost to depression is an incredible loss. After a battle with cancer….what a journey. The depressing effects of many conventional accepted chemical therapies is not generally recognised. Statistically she was cured. But the treatment killed her. Where are the statistics for that? It sounds harsh, but all these treatments are upheld by statistics. In whose interest are these statistics gathered? Not this patient – her struggle, her pain is lost to the records. There are too many like her. We have a national health system, and stats like these are
    Very unflattering to the system, the treatments and the pharmaceutical companies which are paid millions in
    public money. The Australian Bureau of Statistics seems to serve more corporations than people.

  15. Fedup

    The simple truth is politicians and pharmaceutical companies don’t give a shit about human life! The truth be known they already have a cure for cancer and have had for decades. The sad part is there is no money in curing people! The ABS can falsify number any which way they want! We have a National Health System but for how much longer? I still believe Turnbull will change it and blame it on Labour.

  16. Athena

    “The simple truth is politicians and pharmaceutical companies don’t give a shit about human life! The truth be known they already have a cure for cancer and have had for decades. The sad part is there is no money in curing people! ”

    Rubbish, rubbish and more farking rubbish! It is in a pharmaceutical company’s best interests to cure people because the longer they live, the more chance they have of needing other products later in life. Vaccines cost only a small fraction of treating the equivalent disease in some cases. If your allegations had an ounce of truth to them, pharmaceutical companies would not manufacture vaccines. Antibiotics cure millions of people worldwide every day. There has recently been a patient in the hospital where I work with a bleeding disorder that cost over $100,000 in recombinant clotting factor to treat. We are now seeing some very promising immunotherapies that are proving to be very effective at curing cancer and they are extremely expensive. There is big money in curing people. You’ve also failed to take into account that the pharmaceutical companies have employees who get sick, and the employees’ families get sick. Do you really think they’re all part of the conspiracy to willingly die or watch their loved ones die just to hold back on a cure? Your tinfoil hat is way too tight.

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