Life consistent with our identity
I love a good public disagreement; lately there seems to be a perishing lack of the good kind. To me it now seems a welcome novelty to hear passionate people debate from very different sides of a complex issue without reverting to attacks on character or intelligence.
Recently, we saw a great example of this, in the first oral submissions to the Health Select Committee’s suicide inquiry. Matt Vickers was there speaking in support of his late wife Lecretia Seales’ request for legalised assisted suicide, and Dr Amanda Landers spoke against assisted suicide, from her perspective as a palliative care doctor.
Afterwards, Mr Vickers told Fairfax he has “nothing but respect for the work Amanda does,” and reaffirmed his reasons for supporting euthanasia, stating: “My wife believed that anyone facing a debilitating illness that was inconsistent with their identity should have the right to choose to be assisted to die.”
In turn I’d say that I have nothing but respect for Mr Vickers’ devotion to his late wife and his passion for continuing her fight, but this reasoning for legal assisted suicide concerns me greatly. After all, who would say that any illness is consistent with their identity?
For many, this isn’t a hypothetical. I have friends living with disability, chronic pain, and mental illness; all illnesses that are inconsistent with the way they would prefer to live. And still they do live: complex, valuable, joyous, dreary, human, dignified lives—the same as any of my other friends. They have challenges that are different to mine, but they’ve all found sustainable and hard-won ways to live well. What doesn’t help them are the many able-bodied people who look at them and say things like: “Wow, you’re so much stronger than I am, I don’t know how I would manage if I was in your position.”
I’ve stood next to friends as they’ve heard these well-meaning statements, and the clear message they receive is: “I’m so relieved I don’t have to deal with what you consider to be everyday life. I’d rather be dead than disabled.” Talking with them afterwards, I’ve heard that these statements don’t make them feel stronger, it makes them feel like their lives are less valuable—their bodies considered less human than people who aren’t experiencing illness or disability. It’s hard to imagine how this feels when you haven’t had to deal with it every day.
British actress and disability activist Liz Carr puts it this way: “If I said I wanted to die, the press, celebrities and the public would support my choice, seeing it as rational and understandable. Hell, they would probably set up a go-fund-me campaign to help me make it happen. Yet when a healthy, non-disabled person wants to kill themself [sic] it’s seen as a tragedy, and support and prevention tools are provided. If nothing else convinces me that to legalise assisted suicide is not a safe option for many of us then this does. Suicide is not seen as socially desirable—so why is assisted suicide seen as compassionate when it’s for ill or disabled people?”
In this debate we’re discussing whether or not we want our government to allow certain people who meet certain criteria to kill themselves with the assistance of another person. To reduce the threshold for such an act down to ‘a debilitating illness that is inconsistent with my identity’—or, the way I saw life turning out for me—is irresponsible, and would prove impossible to define in any legally meaningful way.
There is necessarily a lot of emotion and empathy required in any discussion of painful death and chronic illness. But as we share and respond to people’s experiences of living and dying, we must also use reason to assess how any change to the legal status of assisted death might change our society’s view of life and death—and what kind of life is worth living.