November 2017

Navigating the assisted dying debate

Within society I hear a babble of self-assured voices that prevent any openness to hearing the views of others, writes Sister Pam Grey.

BY Pam Grey SGS

The ongoing debate on the Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill has unsettled me. When Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced last year that his government would introduce a Bill into parliament to legalise assisted dying, he said that: “Each and every member of my team will have a conscience vote and I am confident that each and every member of the parliament more broadly will search their conscience, search their values and search their personal experience to make a decision that they believe is the right decision for the future”.

Throughout this debate I have followed newspaper reports, watched snatches of the parliamentary debates on television and witnessed the passion and heard the stories of various speakers. Within society I hear a babble of self-assured voices that prevent any openness to hearing the views of others.

During this time precious memories have returned of accompanying my parents and also some of my Good Samaritan Sisters, as each of them died. I find myself wanting to protect these memories while this debate continues.

While wondering how this debate could be improved I found myself humming a line of a song, “Love Will Find a Way”. I looked up the lyrics and discovered it came from the film The Lion King and smiled.

“In a perfect world
One we’ve never known
We would never need
To face the world alone…

Like dark, turning into day
Somehow we’ll come through
Now that I’ve found you
Love will find a way.
I know love will find a way.”

Can good decisions be built on love?

Words matter too in framing points of view and the language used in discussions on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill show that:

  • Points of view are based on experiences – good, bad, frightening, ennobling or peaceful.
  • They are fuelled by emotions – unconscious, conscious, fear, anger, relief, peace.
  • Points of view also come from imagining the effects on society, including families, neighbours, doctors, nurses, palliative carers, care facilities, hospital staff.
  • And then the economy comes into one’s point of view too – affordability and availability of choice for the rich, poor, pensioner, prisoner.
  • Will it be State-assisted or personal responsibility?
  • Values underpin one’s point of view – democratic, faith-based, Gospel-based, rights of the individual to choose or decline.
  • Legality may shape one’s point of view – wills, Powers of Attorney, Advance Care Plans, protections guaranteed by State law.
  • Basic human rights enter the scene as well.
  • Professional expertise and experience ground us in reality.

Language underpins our culture. I wonder if we can lift the lid on taboo ideas – the unthinkable, unsayable things and do this with dignity, respect and honour?

I am left with three key questions that need to be faced in this discussion:

  1. Who is the most important person in these discussions?
  2. What are her/his most urgent needs and desires?
  3. Who may be at risk in decisions on voluntary assisted dying?

As you can see I have more questions than answers.

I realise now that we all need to be in this conversation as communities and families. Conversations can begin once we have the words to say it. Songs may help us with the words, and music can release our deep-down knowing. The CD, “Diana, Princess of Wales: Tribute” has 36 songs that give expression to so many responses to dying, death and bereavement. The first 10 titles are listed as examples.

  • “Who Wants To Live Forever”
  • “You Have Been Loved”
  • “Angel”
  • “Make Me A Channel of Your Peace”
  • “Miss Sarajevo”
  • “Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 18” (“The darling buds of May”)
  • “Little Willow”
  • “Tears in Heaven”
  • “Everybody Hurts”
  • “Streets of Philadelphia”

The CD, “Paradisum, Serene Sacred Songs” arouses faith, hope and love – important components needed in conversations of life and death.

Benedictine discernment may help frame conversations on voluntary assisted dying. Obedience calls us to listen with the ear of our heart, to listen to the heartfelt words of each other and to do what is judged the better course. Stability helps us to stay together in the discernment when the way ahead is not obvious. Conversion of life is built on a strong sense of mutuality where space is created for openness, silence, listening and sharing, and together moving towards acceptance and resolution.

It is at times of societal shifts that we recognise the importance of discernment in our lives, the making of informed conscience decisions and the sharing of responsibility. We acknowledge the need of taking time and taking care so that our faith, hope and love may come together in uncertain times.

On a personal level, I wonder: do we dare admit the thought of our own death?

“Into your hands, living God, faithful and trustworthy,
delighting in us, yearning for us,
into your hands, we cast the whole of our being,
for you are transforming us bodily, spiritually.
Grant us a quiet night and a peaceful death. Amen.”

(adapted from Jim Cotter, Praying the Dark Hours, p.21)

Pam Grey

Melbourne-based Good Samaritan Sister Pam Grey is a writer and poet. She also volunteers as a home tutor for newcomers to Australia who need language and resettlement support.

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