On the elimination of the suffering

Megan Best

Why is it, as soon as we see someone suffering, that we so quickly think of eliminating the sufferer?  Is it that we think that their suffering is so bad that they would be better off dead than to continue as they are? Or is it that we are fearful that their suffering would only increase if they were to continue to live in a society which is unwilling to change so that their needs will be met?  Or are we concerned that we would suffer because of them?

Consider the case of the prospective euthanasia victim.  There was a time when our attention was drawn to those in dreadful pain as the case in point.  The growth of awareness regarding palliative care provided understanding that pain can be relieved if only the resources and the access are available.  Now it is the slow deterioration of the lonely disabled which is at the forefront of the debate.  Isolated and ignored, they are left to endure remorseless reminders of their losses as we fail to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  One current pro-euthanasia campaign recounts the situation of a woman who lives alone and, although physically disabled and eligible for fulltime care, is still alone 17 hours a day, unable to lift a finger to help herself.  And we are supposed to find this reason enough to allow doctors to help their patients kill themselves?

It is interesting to consider the terms we use to discuss disability. In the post-industrial era, disability in Western society has been regarded as an individual affliction described in medical terms. The person is disabled—he has the problem, not society, and he has to deal with it. In a youth-obsessed, death-denying culture, disability embarrasses us. They are different from us, the ‘impaired’. Society does not adequately support their needs, and so they become ‘handicapped’—not from the disability so much as the society that is unwilling to fully accommodate them. In which case surely there is an argument for us as a society to change rather than accept too quickly that there is nothing that can be done for them.

The national debate regarding the introduction of a National Disability Insurance Scheme has encouraged me that perhaps we have not forgotten that we share our humanity and that, but for the grace of God (as they say), it might have been us.  Insurance schemes have always appealed to our common vulnerability, that we don’t know who will be the one next in need of the funds in the kitty.  And even if that were not the case, surely it is the role of a civilized society to help those who cannot help themselves.

The work of the World Health Organisation affirms this understanding. Their  International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health casts new light on the notions of ‘health’ and ‘disability’. It acknowledges that every human being can experience a decrease in health and thereby experience some degree of disability. Disability is not something that only happens to a minority of human beings. WHO ‘mainstreams’ the experience of disability and recognizes it as a universal human experience. By shifting the focus from what caused the disease to how it affects the way we live, it places all health conditions on an equal footing, allowing them to be compared using a common measure for both health and disability.   It makes sense to make available the support that each of needs, whether it be subsidized medication on the PBS or a wheelchair.

But what of the lonely, the unhappy, the neglected?  What are we to do with these uncomfortable neighbours whose existence is so bereft of comfort that they can bear it no longer?  There is no medicine that replaces the warmth of human touch.  When we are lonely, it is human presence that comforts us.  Are we so emotionally bankrupt as a society that we are unwilling to meet this need?

It is easy to say that these lives are no longer worthwhile, agreeing with those who are burdened with such lives and so making our acquiescence with their plans to escape the misery seem like benevolent kindness.  But is this the kind of society we want to become?
Legislation can have an educative effect.  Many people in our community equate what is ethical with what is legal.  We have a choice.  We can affirm that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with suffering, see our suicide statistics rise yet again and avoid a further tax levy to cover the costs.  Or we can embrace our humanity and rally as a society to help those less fortunate than ourselves and continue to seek ways to cure the problems which can potentially affect us all.

Which is it to be?


See also the latest SIE briefing 'Euthanasia lives agan'

Feature photo: Christianacare