Euthanasia and the vulnerable art of dying

The Rev. Sande Ramage

30 June 2012

Euthanasia and the vulnerable art of dying

Talking about death makes many people feel vulnerable.  Talk about euthanasia and the vulnerability in some circles is overwhelming.  This suggests to me that there is something important to talk about.

The Ministry of Health is trying to encourage conversations about dying through Advance Care Planning.  The idea is to think through the treatment you want or don't want towards the end of your life and to talk about this with your family, friends, doctor or nurse.  
Information about the programme is accessible online, the sample form is easy to follow and on the whole, it's a positive initiative to encourage conversation about dying.
I've been enthusiastic about it but once I started working through the thinking and contemplation questions in the planning guide I hit a snag.  I realised that I wanted to talk about more than limiting treatment.  I knew I had to talk about being able to end my life if I felt I needed to.  However this programme is focused on allowing a natural death and actively avoids discussion about assisted death.
Choosing the moment of death is central to the End of Life Choice bill proposed by MP Maryann Street.  She says this legislation is about dignity, autonomy and compassion, allowing people control at the end of their life whilst providing the best protection possible to avoid exploitation.  This makes complete sense to me, particularly from a spiritual perspective.
'Spirituality,' says Elizabeth McKinley, Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, is about meaning in life and relationship, and as such it is a critical part of what it is to be human.'  She suggests this ultimate meaning is mediated through relationships, the environment, arts and religion. [i]
Making meaning has been the central driving force of my life.  It inspires almost every waking moment, even the not so good ones.   And, as I've thought about the end of my life, I've come to see that the vulnerable art of dying is the culmination of my meaning making.  
From my understanding of spirituality, if I reach the stage of being unable to make meaning, perhaps through dementia or some other kind of physical or mental deterioration then I will have stopped being a human person.  
Ensuring I stay alive through prohibiting an arranged death is allowing someone else, or the state to make meaning through my existence.
These issues are challenging to even think about but avoiding them or leaving the discussion to the ethics, medical, legal or theology fraternities is to diminish our stature as human beings; stature that is enhanced, both individually and collectively by the task of making meaning.  

Debate has benefits but sometimes leads to polarized and entrenched positions.  To explore this issue I think we need an enlarged space, created in a way that holds with compassion our ambiguous vulnerabilities, questions and uncertainties.   What do you think?


[i]   from Palliative Care, Ageing and Spirituality, A Guide for Older People, carers and Families, p16-17