One of the saddest stories I have ever covered involved a 17-year-old boy who was pretty well paralysed from the neck down after a crash on his motorbike. He spent the rest of his short life trying to commit suicide.
When I talked to him, he had just been pulled out of the Thames, limp and helpless but alive. He had parked his wheelchair on the bank and somehow released the brakes. He may have had help in getting to the river, but the decision to roll forward into the far-too-shallow water was his. He was "rescued", his resolve to end it all remained.
He eventually succeeded horribly - by managing to set fire to a sofa.
I would not be the one to condemn his decision. I would have had to have thought very hard if he had asked me to help. Would anyone begrudge him the ability to end his own life with less pain and with more dignity?
On the other hand, someone I loved very much was once in deep despair as Parkinson's robbed him of his ability to control his own body. I will remember forever his impotent rage as he failed to cut meat on his plate, and that was way before he became even more helpless.
And yet, when death was offered him in the form of a heart attack, he clung and struggled for life. The fear was in his eyes. Earlier, in the depths of his despair, I think he would have taken the option of "assisted dying" - but when death looked him in the face, he stared back and said "no".
The point I am trying to make is that the decision about when to end one's life might seem clear, but in the moment the reality is much more mysterious. We have some sort of innate will to live. Whatever we may feel in pain and distress may not be the full truth.
All this comes to mind because of the current debate. The Canberra Times is campaigning for the ACT's laws on "assisted dying" to be decided by the territory's Legislative Assembly. The rightness or wrongness of "assisted dying" is quite separate from the debate about who should make the law. You can be very uneasy about facilitated suicide (as it is never called) but still think the right body to make the law sits in Civic.
Canberra is like a city mini-state. The government runs a host of important services, from education to health to punishment. On the latest count, 431,215 people live here - more than in some very successful and prosperous countries (Iceland and Bermuda, for example). If they can decide these matters of life and death, why can't we? It's not as though we have a shortage of brainpower.
MORE FROM THE 'OUR RIGHT TO DECIDE' CAMPAIGN:
But if the federal government does eventually give the territory permission to legislate on the issue, a very serious debate will be needed.
Firstly, it really should be "assisted dying", and not some sort of slippery slope to euthanasia. A person's determination to die should be certain and definite, and not influenced by others.
Euthanasia implies too much action by others. At the end of life, there are no doubt fine judgments to be made by nurses and doctors. I suspect that my mother had her morphine increased, perhaps fatally. I don't have a problem with that. Her life may have been shortened by a few hours to minimise her pain. So be it.
But legal "assisted dying" would need the tightest of safeguards. Imagine an affluent, elderly person in misery and pain. He or she would need protection from the influence of those who might benefit from his or her death.
The process of approval would need to be reasonably swift, to prevent lingering suffering, but not so swift that it wasn't thorough.
The debate would need to be low-key but intense. It would need to be a genuine, thoughtful debate involving the community. Political stances and slogans would not be welcome.
But first we need to be granted the power to make the law.
- Steve Evans is a Canberra Times reporter.
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