March 2016

On dignity and care: a response to Andrew Denton

Perhaps those who believe their dignity is contingent on independence could reflect on their own judgements of others who require assistance, writes Moira Byrne Garton.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

When I was growing up, my sisters and I very much enjoyed watching Andrew Denton on The Money or the Gun, Live and Sweaty and Denton. Intelligent and insightful, his satirical observations on society and politics had us laughing and thinking. Much more recently, I enjoyed his warm and intuitive interviews with public figures on Enough Rope.

So late last year when I noticed Andrew’s involvement in a Q&A special on the ABC which focused on the topic of euthanasia, I watched the program with interest. I already anticipated that Andrew was part of the 70 per cent majority of Australians who are reportedly pro-euthanasia, and Denton has explicitly stated his intention to start a national conversation about the issue (obviously not aware that The Conversation started one five years ago).

Yet despite my appreciation of Andrew Denton, I was let down by his analysis. Denton’s podcast, Better Off Dead (available from The Wheeler Centre) is into its fourth month. But in my view, he frames the debate as an objective binary, when the issue is much more subjective, nuanced and complex; he ignores concerns about accountability and corruption; and he glosses over the concerns of those concerned with the rights of people with disability.

I’m not alone in feeling dismayed; friends and relatives felt similarly. In the media, Professor George L Mendz found his comments “evasive and patronising”. Euthanasia opponent Paul Russell described Denton as “dismissive”, and was troubled by Denton’s over-simplified characterisations of arguments and his assertion that those who “play [the] card” about people with disability or who are elderly “are doing so for very cynical political reasons”.

In response, President of People with Disability Australia, Craig Wallace, wrote that people with disability were understandably worried, and Andrew Denton was wrong. Tom Mortier, whose healthy mother was assisted to suicide under Belgian euthanasia law, was “very disappointed” at Andrew Denton’s treatment of the topic.

Mortier expresses an overlooked angle in the euthanasia debate: the feelings of those left behind, saying, “I loved my mother for more than 30 years and I wanted her to live”. In contrast, the euthanasing medical practitioner knew her only a short time. Yet Denton also brings personal experience to his inquiry. His second Better Off Dead podcast details his father’s painful death after heart failure, which he felt was undignified. He laments that the “images of those final three days will never be erased” and “watching him die remains the most profoundly shocking experience of my life”.

These two experiences are examples of how perceptions of those who are dying can differ. Grieving the loss of my beloved grandmother recently, I was struck by how my cousins and I expressed memories of around 40 years with Nanna, not the last couple where she became forgetful and behaved at times in ways not consistent with the woman we knew for decades. If she had requested physician assisted suicide, my grief would have been compounded. While in her last years, Nanna needed supported living and resided in an aged care home, but her dignity was never in doubt.

Although euthanasia advocates refer to a choice to “die with dignity”, human dignity is inalienable. Requiring assistance with care or during an illness is not undignified, but part of the human condition; we all enter the world requiring care.

I experience dignity when those around me recognise and respond to my intrinsic dignity. My daughter, who has significant disabilities, requires help in many areas of life and her dignity is evident in the way we interact with her. People undermine her dignity when they discuss euthanasia in a way that invalidates the concerns of people like me – who love and care for her – or others with disability.

Writer and medical practitioner Karen Hitchcock said on Q&A, “We highly value autonomy in this society and we think people make choices freely and we’re all strong, self-willed and highly educated, but there are people in our society who rely on the care of the state and others, and I think that those people are vulnerable to unspoken coercion”. Palliative care specialist Ralph McConaghy noted such sources of coercion as money or insurance.

Mortier observes Denton’s lack of critique of the Belgian system, noting Denton neglected to “uncover the corrupt conflicts of interest” in Belgium’s euthanasia regulator. In the Q&A episode, a woman with quadriplegia shared her feelings about being perceived by some in the health system as a “burden” or “better off dead”, and asked how legalising euthanasia would affect her life. Denton argued that peak bodies in The Netherlands and Belgium reassured him that euthanasia of people with disabilities did not occur. He did not respond to the criticism that these peak bodies were not representative of people with disabilities themselves.

In my view, his reply to the questioner that “your fears are very real but it doesn’t make them a reality” was rather patronising. Even proponents of euthanasia hold concerns that medical professionals are the arbiters of death and dying. Euthanasia advocates pooh-pooh the ‘slippery-slope’ argument, but two years ago the Belgium Government countenanced euthanasia for children. Aboriginal people have expressed fears about legislation that has “the potential to lead to premature deaths amongst a group of people whose life expectancy is already unacceptably low”.

Denton observed that during his inquiry, people from all walks of life approached him to tell him their stories in support of euthanasia. Yet as one disability advocate wrote, “I know many who hold views about supporting euthanasia, and they are mostly people not with degenerative disabilities who are likely to be switched off”.

Perhaps those who believe their dignity is contingent on independence could reflect on their own judgements of others who require assistance.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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