Euthanasia first demanded some real attention during the Dunstan years. A harassed press secretary contacted the then Health Minister to ask what he was to put in a press release on the subject. The request was met with a long silence finally came the hesitant reply: “Youth in Asia, surely that is foreign affairs?” Thirty five years later it seems that the subject is still regarded as a foreign affair.
During the past few weeks I have again been confronted by the question of euthanasia. We own boarding kennels and one of our boarders is here for the duration: his owner is too frail to look after him. Our instructions are quite explicit once the quality of his life deteriorates then we are to ask the vet to allow him to die painlessly with dignity. He is 15-years-old and at the rate he is going he will be around for quite a time yet. Vets have their own code of ethics - they will not put dogs down unless it is clear that there is no hope of recovery. It seems that dogs get a better deal than us humans.
Yet it easily could be so different. Both my father and his brother died of emphysema. Yet the manner of their deaths was very different. During the last stages of his illness my father was in a nursing home we visited him daily but really had no idea what his prognosis was. I saw him slowly deteriorate, what was worse I saw him robbed of what is perhaps the most precious thing that we all possess: his dignity. There was nothing wrong with his mind - he knew what was going on, he was lucid right to the end. The fact that he was so aware made that loss of dignity all the more poignant.
He died alone, sometime in the night.
His brother’s death was quite different. Both he and his family were kept informed about the progress of the disease and about the palliative care that was being offered. There came a point where he made the decision that there was really not much point in prolonging matters. Just as some are induced into this world he chose to be seduced out of this world. The decision made he was surrounded by his wife and children - my cousin told me later that he was still joking to the end.
He died surrounded by his loved ones.
Quite apart from the manner of their deaths there was one other difference. My father died in Australia, his brother died in Holland.
Now I watch a friend suffer. His mother is in her 90s and frail. Like my father she is still lucid but totally at a loss to know why she still is alive. She is ready to go. All her life she has been independent, all her life she has called the shots and now her body is letting her down. Her body is robbing her of any dignity; all she is doing is waiting for death and it seems that death has been unavoidably detained. Were she a dog she would lovingly be put to rest. But she is not a dog so there is nothing that can be done for her.
And why is that? My friend suffers because he loves his mother and wants to take that futile pain away from her but is constrained by law.
Why do we have that law?
We have that law because far from being a secular nation we are a nation that will impose the religious sentiments of those who believe on the whole of society, regardless of what people may believe in. We are a society that is in denial, we cannot confront the reality of our own mortality. But above all we are a society that is determined to deny the most important freedom to us all: the freedom to leave when we are ready.
I suppose that the Youth in Asia can sleep easy.
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