Out of respect to our Friend Aina Ranke who committed suicide this year, I feel it is time for us to revisit the issue of voluntary euthanasia. Aina’s case made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. She had a progressive debilitating disease, and wanted to end her life before she became totally dependent on other people. She made her desire to die known to her doctor and her friends. She completed the available forms.
Because she did not want anyone else to be implicated in her suicide she obtained a drug and took it when she was alone. She left a note apologising to the woman who was expected to come to her house to help with housework, explaining her action. Unfortunately the woman arrived when Aina was still alive and called medical assistance. The hospital said her desire to die was negated by her attempt on her own life and tried to resuscitate her. They were unsuccessful, but she took a couple of days to die.
The question I ask myself is: when does the care of the dying, be it carried out with ever so much love and good intention, become an abuse of power?
One of the issues that always comes up during debates on this topic is whether the relatives or carers of the terminally ill person may put undue pressure on them to hasten their death. Here I think is a conversation which we could helpfully start. It seems to me that when voluntary euthanasia is discussed, the attitude to the relatives and/or carers of the dying person is usually condemnatory. They are depicted as selfish people who do not want to be troubled with the care of a slowly degenerating relative, or as greedy people who want to get their hands on an inheritance. Before long we will hear from someone who tells us what a spiritually uplifting experience it was to care for their dying father/wife/brother. The implication of this will be that anyone not enjoying the experience needs to lift their game. After that no-one will dare to come forward to say that caring for their dying relative was absolutely awful. So let me be so bold as to say that caring for my dying husband was ghastly, and that despite having support from family, friends and Friends. (And I should add that voluntary euthanasia was never an option in his case, because he was quite clear that he did not want to die.) For some people the slow death of a friend or relative must be utterly isolating and depressing. This will be worse if the person being cared for does not want to continue living.
So I think the next stage of the discussion regarding voluntary euthanasia must be how the family are to be involved in the process. I suspect that for every person who wishes their loved one would die quickly there are many who cannot bear the thought of letting go, and who will insist that the process of dying be as protracted as possible. How can we respect the wishes of the dying person without causing unnecessary trauma to the survivors? (Of course we also need to support the family of those who wish to continue living, either because life is precious to them or because they are afraid to contemplate their own death.)
This issue is becoming more pressing because of improved medical services. By and large one must be grateful for our ability to delay death. But the result is that people die more slowly. For most of this time life may continue to be rewarding and even useful. But there may come a time when it is burdensome.
I do not expect that the number of people opting for voluntary euthanasia will ever be large. But in view of our increasing ability to keep people alive despite horrific disabilities, I think it is a matter we have to deal with. If voluntary euthanasia had been legal, Aina could have died surrounded by friends and not alone.
Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting