Two things in life are certain: death, and the fact that we must remain alive until we die. When we hear of people living their dying slowly and painfully in empty, bleak and degrading circumstances in this country, we shudder in horror. We hope that if it happened to us, we would have another choice.
For most of us it is intolerable that someone experiencing unbearable suffering should be forced to remain alive against their wishes. Most Australians want laws permitting voluntary assisted dying, but our wishes are disrespected by the politicians elected to represent us.
Carefully crafted voluntary assisted dying laws will take time to implement. If you or someone you love needs the comfort of those laws, it will be too late to turn your attention to them when that need is pressing upon you.
In 2009 I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Seven years later, I could describe the horrors of advanced MS to you, and how it has dismantled my life, piece by piece, but that would just be words on a page. Can you truly imagine the unimaginable and the endurance of the unendurable? Consider what it means to lose your mobility, your job, your driver’s licence, your identity and autonomy. To be forced into a sitting position in a wheelchair all day, every day until you die, with the risk of contractures and other physical deformities, or injuries such as pressure sores, or to be bedbound, housebound, with little to do, in unrelieved pain, perhaps unable to dress, toilet, bathe or feed yourself. Can you imagine that the living of a ‘dying in slow motion’ could cause you to welcome death, or even long for it?
For most of us it is intolerable that someone experiencing unbearable suffering should be forced to remain alive against their wishes.
We want to believe the fiction that our institutions can ease our suffering and provide us with a meaningful existence right up until the end. Presently the only choice for many with a terminal or chronic illness, advanced old age, or degenerative cognitive decline is to suffer an unspeakable fate or commit suicide. They cannot even talk to their doctor about their wishes. Can you imagine their despair?
The barbarity of Australian law makes the only avenue of escape from intolerable suffering an act of suicide, in lonely, slow, and violent ways. Our laws prevent us from ending our lives using a medically prescribed compound that will end life swiftly and painlessly, or to do so in the company of people who care about us. Australian law says that suicide is legal, now go away quietly on your own, out of sight, and do it in the most horrifying way imaginable.
At the centre of that casually imposed cruelty is a minority who have decided that they will tell us what will happen to us at the end of our lives and how we will live our dying.
Voluntary assisted dying is voluntary. It is about personal choice and cannot be imposed on anyone. It should be available not only to the terminally ill but to the chronically and incurably ill, and to those ravaged by advanced old age. The criteria should be unbearable suffering and quality of life, not some arbitrarily chosen time left remaining before death.
The criteria should be unbearable suffering and quality of life, not some arbitrarily chosen time left remaining before death.
Australians overwhelmingly want to define a more compassionate way of approaching death that gives choice to the person who is actually living the dying. We must not turn away.
Lawrie Daniel, 2016, NSW, Australia
Published in The Damage Done
Lawrie Daniel took his own life on 24 September 2016 at his home while his wife and two children were on respite. In a letter to his wife and children Lawrie said:
“I am so sorry I have had to leave you all and end my life this way, but I could see no other option available to me in the circumstances. I ask for everyone’s compassionate understanding, and I ask you all to please forgive me. You and our children helped me every day during nearly a decade of my life with this illness, with infinite loving kindness. Thank you for everything.”
As part of his letter to the NSW Coroner Lawrie said:
“If we had a compassionate voluntary euthanasia process in this country I would not have had to approach my doctor with a hidden agenda, make preparations secretively, or do this alone and without medical supervision. I have had to do this dreadful thing without the formal approval of society, without the ability to prepare my family, and my very limited options for finding the time and place to do this means that a carer is likely to be the one to find me, and no doubt involve emergency services, and I would have spared everyone from experiencing things this way if I could have. I am truly sorry.”