In the euthanasia debate, there is much talk of “dying with dignity.” In Switzerland, one of the organisations that assist the seriously ill to commit suicide is even called Dignitas. But is not the notion of a dignified death somewhat oxymoronic? Just how many people are afforded dignity in death?
A close friend of mine recently lost his wife to bone cancer. As her body slowly became engulfed by the invasive and aggressive tumours, her life force was just gradually snuffed out. In life, she had been vibrant, funny and an incredibly strong woman. She had borne and had helped to raise three lovely children and had provided support to countless others through her work as a teacher of children with learning difficulties.
In fact, if anyone was deserving of dignity in death, it was my friend's wife. But as her closest friends would observe, dying from cancer can be a long and painful experience. It was a grossly unjust and unfair end for an elegant and infinitely dignified woman.
In some respects, the terminally ill are able to face their death with much more introspection and consideration than many others, for whom death may come suddenly. And if dignity is afforded in their passing, in most cases it is not a word that typifies the nature of their illnesses.
Death is the antidote to the delusion of immortality to which so many humans aspire. Cosmetics companies, plastic surgeons, health spas and hair replacement clinics, regardless of the effectiveness or otherwise of their products, are in the business of selling ice to Eskimos. The only problem is that the ice caps are melting at a much faster rate than the ice can be sold and supplied. We might be able to slow down the ageing process, but in most cases that's where the illusion of control begins and ends.
As bleak as it may be, death and loneliness are arguably the two inescapable facets of human existence. Not everyone pays their taxes. Everyone dies, and most do not choose the time of their passing. In most cases, the concept of dignity is completely foreign. My Pa suffered a heart attack while taking my Nan shopping and fell into the gutter. Yet, his final undignified moments end the life of a gentleman about whom I still want to hear stories today, and from whom I have inherited my love of cars.
While my Pa died an undignified death, much less dignity is afforded to those killed by roadside bombings in Iraq. None for soldiers and civilians who are killed in conflicts around the world. Despite their growing cultural legend, many of the Anzacs died incredibly futile and undignified deaths. And perhaps most perversely, there is no dignity for those children who die malnourished in the developing world.
If the loudest argument for euthanasia is motivated by a desire to afford dignity to those who are losing the war of attrition with their illnesses, then perhaps we should consider whether others are worthy of such dignity also.
If, as a society, we care whether a wealthy person dying from a motor neurone disease in Australia can choose an early and “dignified” end, then perhaps we should ask whether we care as much when a toddler dies derelict in an African village overrun by poverty, aids and famine. Perhaps we should then ask why the Howard Government has over-promised and under-delivered on aid commitments under the Millennium Development Goals to halve global poverty by 2015.
Human life should be no more valuable in the developed world than in the developing world. Yet it is perhaps surprising that the euthanasia debate is not prominent in the developing world, where mortality rates are so high. It's also worth noting that terminal disease takes a more direct course in the developing world precisely because of the lack of, and the cost of medical alternatives. Without access to life preserving drugs, death is more swift and thus the case for euthanasia is not as strong.
Where death is such a constant reality, maybe the only option is to cling to life, but only for the duration of its natural course. Whereas in the developed world, we have more options than we can possibly exercise. The best doctors can diagnose and treat illnesses, many drugs can prolong life, though none indefinitely, and euthanasia advocates argue that hastened death should be also be an option for the dying.
Perversely, euthanasia may be a more humane option in the developed world than drugs that will extend life for the suffering.
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