Whose are you? Who does your life belong to? Are you yours?
Whose are you?
Isn’t that always the question? This past month I’ve been talking about gender recognition, abortion, ableism, body policing, sex work, and the one question that always comes up is this. Whose are you?
Today Marie Fleming, a terminally ill woman, is in the High Court seeking the right to assisted suicide. She is suffering with end-stage multiple sclerosis. She is on constant pain, almost entirely paralysed, and has no hope of survival past the next year or two. According to the Irish Times, Marie
had said she lives “with little or no dignity and feared”, with the inevitable deterioration of her condition, she was facing unbearable pain and a situation where she be heavily sedated and/or could end up starving to death as she would not wish to be intravenously fed.
In a statement, Ms Fleming said she was not afraid to die and did not want to live much longer in a situation where he[r] condition is incurable and worsening. She was sorry she had not taken her own life five years ago when she had the use of her limbs, she added.
She wanted to be able to die at a time of her own choosing in the arms of her partner.
I’ll never say that assisted suicide is not a complex issue. It is. In creating guidelines and legislation around assisted suicide, we have to balance compassion for the person who needs assistance to end their life with our very real concern with preventing abuse.
Everybody’s life is priceless and unique. Nobody’s life is nothing more than a burden. Nobody should be forced to continue an existence which has become unbearable with no hope of improvement.
But in all of these complexities, there are two questions which must be the basis for all of our discussions. What is the compassionate act in this situation? And whose are we?
Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of combining honesty and compassion. When it comes to assisted dying, we need both.
Thinking about death
Few of us like to contemplate death. It’s uncomfortable. Most of us avoid thinking of terminal illnesses as much as we can. It’s understandable. We have one chance to live our lives. Who wants to spend what little years we have on our end? If we’ve lost people we love- which most of us have- it gets even harder. Thinking about death reminds us of those godawful weeks or months or years when we sat by our loved ones as they slipped away from us and there wasn’t a damn thing that we could do about it. It hurts.
You know what else hurts? A woman who says that her pain is unbearable. Who is terrified of being denied the right to die without pain in her partner’s arms, and of the prospect of a drawn-out sedated death by starvation. Those of us who are not- yet– in her position have a responsibility to prioritise compassion over our own discomfort.
We’ve got to be honest.
None of us will live forever. Medicine allows us to live decades longer than we otherwise would have, but there will inevitably come a point for each of us when it can no longer save us. For a long time, this has been the primary goal of medical science- to cure, treat and prevent disease and by doing so to give us all longer and healthier lives. It’s been a stunning success. My immune system is swimming with antibodies from vaccines to diseases that killed in my grandparents’ generation. Several members of my family can look forward to long, healthy lives after spotting a genetic condition that would have eventually killed them untreated. Because of medical science, I hope that we can all enjoy a long old age together.
But it doesn’t last forever. And it doesn’t always work. For every polio and haemochromatosis there’s an MS, ALS or an untreatable tumour. We can’t fix everything. Eventually every one of us will come down with something that we just can’t fix. If we’re lucky it’ll be relatively short and painless. Sometimes it won’t be. For Marie Fleming, it is neither. Sometimes we come to a point where we cannot cure, we can no longer treat, and we cannot ease pain. When we can’t do those things, what can we do? What do we do?
When allowing assisted suicide prolongs life
Suicide is not illegal in Ireland. We each have the right to die by our own hand. What is illegal is assisting someone else in ending their life. In most circumstances, that makes sense. The idea of a grey area where taking someone else’s life is legal seems like it would introduce the kind of legal ambiguities that could be used to let people quite literally get away with murder. But look at this:
[Marie Fleming] was sorry she had not taken her own life five years ago when she had the use of her limbs.
I think that we all can agree that euthanasia and assisted suicide should not be taken lightly. They should be a matter of last resort when everything else has failed and when there is no hope for happiness and a decent quality of life. But because assisted suicide is illegal in Ireland, Marie Fleming wishes she had taken her own life while she still could. Our banning of assisted suicide led directly to a woman wishing she had taken her own life before it became unbearable. Because she knew that there was no other way. And the reason that she did not?
Mr Curran had dissuaded her from taking her own life five years ago but had assured her, if or when she came to the point where she wanted to die that he, “notwithtanding his own fears and sadness, will do all he can to help me”.
Marie Fleming is alive today because she was promised a way out when she needed it. Our state will prosecute him for this. We’ll tell him that he is a murderer because he gave his partner half a decade of life. Do you think that is reasonable or ethical? I don’t.
Whose are we?
And here we come back to that interminable question. Whose are we? Do we belong to our families? To the state? To (FSM forbid) the church? Are we ours?
If Marie Fleming belongs to the state, then the state can intervene to prevent her from getting the assistance she needs to take her own life. If she belongs to Marie Fleming, then there is only one person who can decide when her life should no longer continue.
We need to allow dying people the same dignity and bodily autonomy as the rest of us enjoy. We have a two-tier system in this country right now- one law for those of us with full use of our limbs and another for those without. None of us want tragedies like Marie Fleming’s illness to happen. But when they do, we have the responsibility to act with humanity and compassion and the understanding that each of us, at the end of the day, belong to ourselves.