The government in my home state of Western Australia has just passed some of the most far-reaching euthanasia laws in the nation, and they are proud. Gleeful even.
There was pushback, notably from one local MP who I know, Nick Goiran, who managed to get changes made in the weeks leading up to the passing of the bill. But it was never going to be enough. Assisted dying – as it is euphemistically called – is here to stay. But not here to “stop” and stay. The parameter will inevitably be widened. That’s the way these things work. Nothing will go backwards, everything – according to a progressive way of thinking – must go forward. But to what?
The usual media outlets have bolstered the laws in the sight of the public by publishing assisted dying stories and the liberties they bring to people. Nary an article in sight that dissents. It’s clear that personal narratives are the way this is being pushed. Hard political and legal power is inevitably reinforced by soft cultural power.
Pushed under the carpet are issues surrounding elder-abuse, which is on the increase in the western world. Older family members often have a right to fear their younger progeny. These stories rarely get air time. These don’t fit the narrative of progress in a society that has lost sight of the true meaning of the word “euthanasia” – which means “good death”. A good death was one where someone died well in the sense of nothing being left undone that needed to be done, all relationships intact that needed to be intact, and a steadfast commitment to what was beyond death itself.
Of course none of this says anything about quality of life or pain management. But a friend I run with, a geriatric specialist, who was my dad’s doctor in his final days, has said that palliative care is much more effective than many people believe it to be. He does not hold to a Christian worldview, but as someone who sees death all of the time, he had a cautious attitude to euthanasia.
Much of these nuances are swamped by the “right to die” stories, proving that our post-Christian ethic is increasingly by aesthetics as much as anything else.
But there are other stories to be told. Other aesthetic stories that need to be told that have a deep ethic to them also.
It is almost three years since my own father died, of a horrible disease called Lewy Body Dementia. A disease so bad that actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life rather than face what it would do to him.
So someone asked me just today, in light of that legislation what I thought about euthanasia, given what my father went through in the last few years of his life. I can partly speak for him, but mostly for me. And I want to say this:
In a late modern culture that is increasingly brutish and uncaring, with little sympathy for the truly weak such as the unborn and the old, the opportunity to look after my father in his long, slow, and debilitating death, changed something about me. It changed something about me that we all need changed in us.
And what was that change? It was the softening of my heart. We live in an increasingly hard hearted, callous, time-is-money world, in which a person’s worth is determined by their identity; by what you can do for them; by their talents and looks; by what they contribute to society.
But what happens when you can’t prove your worth any longer? What happens when even you think you are worth nothing? What happens when we no longer give people the chance to be a huge burden to us? What happens when we are no longer those who will bear the huge burdens of others? Especially others who linger in long-term illness or debilitation? I’m sick of hearing progressive laments about the need for deep community while at the same time seeing the weakest among our communities sacrificed on the altar of personal or political expediency.
My dad’s three to four years of decline cut me to the heart. Cut us as a family to the heart. We watched as, first fearful, he entered a locked ward, where we spent a huge amount of energy and time calming him and making him comfortable as he lost his mind. We visited though our lives were busy, and had long boring, interminable conversations about whatever was agitating him that day.
We then watched as he lost his fine motor skills, unable to grasp a pen, or adjust his hearing aid properly, or flick the “play” button on his CD to listen to his beloved Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.
We watched as he lost gross motor skills, unable to walk, unable to feed himself and unable to toilet. And we watched as he lost his ability to speak, or respond with anything ore than a squeeze of the arm.
And I watched in tears as his long estranged son, whom he had broken relationship with so long ago, sat by his bedside and cried holding his hand, all the time seeing Dad’s glimmer of recognition and attempt to voice his name. And that broke my hard heart.
It broke my hard, distracted, too-busy-with-the-important-stuff-of-life heart. If there is one problem in our culture it is not that our hearts are too soft, but too hard.
It all broke my heart like it should. I know it was not much fun for Dad, but he was well cared for and loved even by a staff of new migrant Asians and Africans who will work the jobs we are no longer committed to doing, mainly because we’ve got more important stuff to do than to care for the weakest people in our society.
And was Dad ever truly sick enough for us – with power of attorney – to pull a plug? No, never. But if you think that’s where it’s going to end, think again. There is no slippery slope here: there is a precipice and on one side of it is a culture that values life for its very sake, and there is another that sees the impositions on either ones own life or the life of others, and decides it’s their call to make.
In the future it won’t even be an issue: patients with Lewy Body Dementia will be killed off without their consent and the bed made available within 24 hours. It already is. We had less than a day to clear everything out of Dad’s room before the next person moved in.
Famed theologian Stanley Hauerwas stated recently:
I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.
Present tense Stanley, present tense. You see the materialist view of the universe can still surf off the transcendent wave – until the wave runs out of steam. As it stands orthodox religious communities are quickly becoming the last vestiges of a worldview and world practice where death does not necessarily end suffering.
Oh how I wished Dad would have died early. So often I wished for that as he went through that dreadful disease. But on the other hand I would never have seen him reunite with his son. Never have walked in on Mum tenderly cleaning up the man who had left her for another woman years before (and which I wrote about here last year). Never have seen that African carer gently lift him out of his chair and with the most tender dance-like shuffle, bring him across to his bed. Never have seen his first wife (my mum) and his second wife meet across his death-bed and help plan a funeral with me.
None of this made Dad’s suffering any easier. Though the extent to which he knew about what was going on was unclear by the end. But as I sat weeping beside his bed on the night he died, swabbing his fevered lips with a water-soaked cotton bud, I was grateful for the soft heart that I had been given, that not only got me sitting there seeing out his last hours, but had me wanting to do it.
A signed off euthanasia bill – one of the most radical and invasive in the nation – may bring glee to the faces of its most vocal proponents, but the heart-aching decline of my dad that we allowed to occur, despite our misgivings and pain – brought grace to our hearts. I totally understand the heartache and despair of seeing a loved one die terribly. Indeed I see the challenge it presents to me, should I suffer a similar or worse pathway to death when it comes, as it inevitably will.
Yet, leaving that aside, if you have to choose between glee and grace in this increasingly graceless culture, then choose grace every time. Even if it means giving up some other choice or right that you wish to impose either on yourself or on others.