Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Euthanasia: let's look at the bigger picture

The following article was written by Craig Wallace and published on on the Ramp Up page on January 21, 2013 under the title: Euthanasia: let's look at the bigger picture.
Craig Wallace is the President of People with Disability Australia.
Media coverage of suicide and euthanasia often looks very different, depending on whether or not disability is a factor, writes Craig Wallace.
Craig Wallace
By Craig Wallace, Ramp Up, January 21, 2013
Like many people, I was struck by last week's story about 45 year old deaf twin brothers killed by "legal euthanasia" in Belgium. According to reports, they were both going blind and were frightened of losing their independence and had "nothing to live for".
An excellent piece by Leah Hobson published on Ramp Up last week makes the case against stacking judgments on brothers Marc and Eddy. However our view on legalising euthanasia here in Australia needs to weigh personal rights, disability rights, financial, emotional and other pressures which we may experience to take our own lives.
It is significant that the focus of articles about euthanasia and end of life planning like this one in The Australian hastily drift into how much it costs the community to keep people with intensive support needs going. How quickly compassion dies and the calculators come out.
In the current world of rationed care and economic rationalism, it is not hard to imagine a situation where the availability of euthanasia becomes seen as a cheaper, easier, 'rational' option to providing intensive support, community living and care for those most vulnerable. Instead of having the support to make well-considered choices, the services that make life bearable could fall away and people with disabilities could be levered into taking their lives as the default option.
Euthanasia can become a euphemism which sanitises what is, essentially, suicide. It is hard to see what separated euthanasia from suicide for Mark and Eddy, except they had a disability.
Suicide is not a lifestyle option. It's the end of any choice, good or bad. It's choice denying. Also, suicide is handled in a very careful way by the media - it is often unreported to discourage copycat deaths and published articles usually carry warnings.
Suicide is something society discourages for every group of people. Except when they are talking about people with disabilities. No suggestions to call Lifeline or get help in articles like this one - instead we are told "they were very happy" and "it was a relief". The doctor who helped the twins take their lives reportedly described their end as a "gift".
What does it say about the perceived value of people with disabilities when our deaths are described in clinical terms and counted as a blessing?
People take their lives for all sorts of reasons - they might be bankrupt, old, ill, lonely, overworked, trapped in poverty, abused, addicted, confused about their sexuality, at the sharp edge of family breakdown, in shame or at the end of a long set of bad life experiences.
If suicide is a gift for one group of people who feel their lives have become unbearable, then why not for everyone who feels like this? Imagine the reaction if someone wrote about the tragic, senseless death of UK nurse Jacintha Saldanha and described it as a "relief".
In a world with total empathy and certainty - where we all understood what each other meant all of the time - I might support voluntary suicide in extremis on medical grounds.
But we don't live in such a world of crystal clarity, so my concerns are about definitions of words like 'voluntary' and 'unbearable' and how they will be interpreted by mortals, including doctors.
Let's look at the term 'unbearable', for example. Most lives involve periods of discomfort and pain - physical, emotional, mental. Unrequited love or grief can be a kind of incurable pain. Depression or arthritis another. Major life changes can cause pain. Some forms of pain may be fixed within people's lifetimes and others not. Each period of pain may seem unbearable at the time.
I have known many people with disabilities who have gone through stages of grief and loss, including suicidal feelings, and came through the other side with joy and a love of life. Everyone - with or without a disability - can make new choices over a lifetime. Or reach an acceptance of life. But there is no 'undo' button for death.
In Belgium legislators are now proposing amending the law to accommodate suicide for minors. If euthanasia is a right, then where do these rights stop and for whom? How can they be granted to one group of people and not another? This, it seems to me, is why it's simply not within the capacity of the State or the medical profession to decide who stays and who goes. This, I think, is also how the clientele for euthanasia can easily move from people in pain from cancer, to people in pain because of quadriplegia or paraplegia or chronic depression.

Discussions on these issues sometimes turn to religion and the sanctity of life. That's fine for others but my position is drawn from Article 10 of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which affirms that every human being has the inherent right to life.
While I doubt there is a heaven, we have seen that hell can be created right here on earth. There are doors that call us there and should not be opened. 'Legal euthanasia' for people with disability is one of them.
If this article brings up any issues for you, support and information about suicide prevention is available by calling Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

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