A good death

The lower house of the Victorian parliament voted last week to allow euthanasia laws, the first in Australia. It’s still not a done deal, but it’s more likely than not that they will be passed into law. I reckon that’s great years.

It’s a contentious subject, split by ethical, religious and humanitarian arguments. For the doctor brought up to respect the Hippocratic oath it goes against all that tradition, yet so many doctors – who see the suffering and grief up close – have a natural sympathy for a merciful end. I remember my grandfather, who died in the early eighties, laying in his sick bed in the old Prince Henry basically non-compos, and who, with a nod and a wink, was allowed to slip away without artificial sustenance.

I can understand and even sympathise with many who oppose euthanasia. At the very least it makes for a complex philosophical conjecture. Late last week Paul Keating, a Australian I respect before any other, came down hard against it. On this occasion though I think he is wrong, if not out of touch, then perhaps out of step.

I don’t know of anyone who has lost someone close to the cruel ravages of disease who opposes euthanasia. Most, like me, are strong advocates for it. There is a selfish aspect to that: it is demoralising to watch your loved ones waste away in pain. It seems demonstrably cruel, not just to them, but to those forced to witness it without the power to do anything about it. This is not mercy.

My mother, like many with terminal diseases, wished to cut short her pain. She was clear about this from a long way out, and conjectured plans to make it so. It was about pain for her, but also about dignity – she wanted to go out on her terms. That’s a powerful argument – especially when you consider the sad alternative she had to suffer.

As her son I found it very hard. It’s awful to watch someone you have so loved suffer so badly, and in mum’s case at least there seemed very little left of her in the last days. Her body went on, briefly, but she was too far remote from us to connect. I watched her deteriorate, held her frail hand, spoke to her hoping she could hear me, but all of it was gut wrenching.

What was hard as a son was that I could do nothing to help her. She had clear instructions, yet I could do nothing to obey them. It felt a betrayal which, combined with grief, was a heavy burden to carry. I’ll never forget how mum ended, and have no doubt it would have been right had she been able to choose her time of passing, when she was still lucid and bright and of sound mind, before the long slide to oblivion.

Morally I have no doubt about the rightness of euthanasia. Getting it right legally is the tricky part, but it appears the bill under discussion has properly considered the complexities and contradictions of the situation. This will be no simple rubber stamp. As it should be there will be a process with checks and balances. I so hope it becomes law, and think it reflects well on us as a society and state – the most progressive in Australia.

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