My maternal grandmother died terrified, shrunken and alone in a hospital bed five hours from home. Her voice was fading, she was wearing a nappy and she lay crying at night asking to go home. Still, she would never have chosen to die. Despite checking every box in the model for voluntary euthanasia proposed in the Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation, apart from being a Tasmanian resident, she would never have made that decision. She did not want to die.
My paternal grandfather, however, would have chosen voluntary euthanasia if his death had not come in the swift, well-ordered manner that it did. I’ve written before about his model death, hand in hand with his wife on their bed at home after being discharged from hospital. But if he had been facing a drawn-out, painful death, if he had been at risk of losing his faculties, fading, as voluntary euthanasia campaigner Robert Cordover wrote, “like a chalk drawing on a rainy pavement,” I am sure he would have chosen to die. He would have done as Mr Cordover did and researched painless ways to end his own life, and my grandmother would now be like Nica Cordover, unable to talk openly about the nature of her husband’s death for fear of criminal repercussions.
Grandma Lorna left school in her early teens and lived her whole life within a 50 kilometer radius of the farm at Cassilis. She was not educated, worldly, knowledgeable or particularly confident. But she could not have been persuaded to end her life early to avoid later ugliness even if the legal avenue had been available and my family had been callous enough to pressure her and make her feel less valued. It would have been easier for us, had she died that way. But she was no less firm in her opinions and expressing her desires than my educated, highly intelligent and caustically cynical former journalist grandfather.
Laws like the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill that is being debated in the Tasmanian House of Assembly tonight would not have altered either of their views in the slightest. I know that just as I know the real reason my grandmother requested bagpipes at her funeral was because the Queen Mother had bagpipes at hers, and as far as Granny was concerned she deserved the same send-off.
But it might, had Gil Wahlquist not died as he did, have meant months of stress for he and my paternal grandmother, Vincie, while they worked out what to do, and months of anguish for Vincie as she watched a husband known for his razor-sharp wit lose the ability to write, read and even talk.
I don’t presume to tell Tasmania’s parliamentarians how to vote. As previously reported,
there aren’t enough on the fence to save the legislation anyway. I’m not commenting on the specifics of the proposed Tasmanian legislation and whether the safeguards are sufficient to protect vulnerable people from coercion. And I understand the fear that such legislation is a slippery slope that ends in the death hospitals of Brave New World, where children receive death conditioning and the dying are medicated and shuffled off with the minimum social inconvenience. But that horror story began with the destruction of autonomy and respecting autonomy is what voluntary euthanasia is about. The question of whether a person ought to have control over their life, and consequently their death, can, for me, only be answered with a yes.
I acknowledge that my position on this issue is inescapably intertwined with my lack of a belief in an eternal soul. But it is wrong to say that makes a person less compassionate; it simply makes compassion more urgent. To quote two famous “post-modernist secular humanists”:
“You cannot for one second abrogate the responsibility that this is it.” – Stephen Fry.
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill won’t pass this time around. But maybe, one day, parliament will be kind.