09 Nov Life’s Book Ends (for Lucretia Seales)
First published in the Press 17.6.15
Working out what is ethically the right thing to do sometimes involves working backwards. You can have an instinctive reaction to what is right or wrong, and then search for the reasoning that explains your instinct.
Like a lot of people, I guess, I’ve been thinking recently about how I want to die. Lucretia Seales gave us all that gift by mounting a legal challenge seeking the right for a doctor to help her die without criminal prosecution. It is fair to say that everyone’s heart broke a little when we heard the news that the courts wouldn’t allow this. She did a remarkable thing in allowing her death to be part of our national conversation, one that we might now be ready for.
The thing is, when we are well, we all want to live forever. But when we are not well – and have no hope of getting better – that urge changes. Then we, and the people who love us, discover continuing to live is not everything, and that dying well counts too.
Perhaps this isn’t a new thing. There are cultures where the tradition has been for people at the end of life to wander off into the snow or the desert when they’ve felt their time has come. Perhaps an expectation that we can go on forever is the new thing.
I’ve felt warmly towards being able to manage a dignified death for years now. I understand the arguments about not playing god, and focusing on palliative care, and the dangers of giving doctors the right to end life rather than always preserve it.
So I’ve wondered why I’ve felt instinctively in favour of euthanasia (ugly word) or “end of life choice”, “assisted suicide” and (better) dying with dignity.
In part it is because I’ve witnessed the other thing – palliative care that doesn’t properly stop the pain, and a final life chapter that doesn’t reflect in any humane way a life otherwise lived with verve and independence and kindness.
But another thought occurred to me over these recent weeks. That maybe we shouldn’t think of death as the opposite of life but instead as a bookend that matches birth. One an entrance, the other an exit. So this conversation we are having is not about life on the one hand and death on the other, but is better described as one about birth and death.
And we do all kinds of things to assist birth. We don’t wait for a god or natural processes to determine when a person begins her or his life. We plan pregnancies, and when pregnancies are complicated, we’ll set a date to make it happen. When births are tricky, we’ll circumvent nature and deliver by caesarean. “This,” we’ll say, “is the day you will enter the world.” So perhaps it is not so hard to understand that a sentient being might be able to say for themselves, “This is the day I will leave the world.” So we have the chance to exit the way we entered – with as little pain and as much dignity as we can all offer each other.
– Michele A’Court