Are we happy for the elderly to sleep with a loaded firearm beneath their pillow?
Although most would be disturbed by the thought, it is how certain elderly Australians live today. It is not so much a firearm, but a lethal drug, usually Nembutal, that some Australians have secured through illegal means for the explicit purpose of ending their life at a time of their choosing.
They are the lucky ones.
Those who are not as well informed or do not have the support of a sympathetic GP who is willing to risk deregistration or even imprisonment to help them die in a safe and peaceful manner default to violent means.
If you want an insight into how certain elderly die, take a look at the reports produced by the coroner. In these reports you will read of how octogenarians kill themselves at a rate of two per week, usually by tying a noose around their neck, taking a broken glass to their throat, ingesting a stockpile of prescribed drugs, or succumbing to poisonous fumes, when faced with the prospect of going to a aged care facility.
This grim reality is reflected in the Australian Bureau of Statistic suicide data, which shows men aged 85 and older suicide at the rate of almost 40 in every 100,000, partly due to terminal and incurable illnesses.
My grandfather was in his 80s when he died. I have vivid memories of him retiring to the sunroom of our Californian bungalow with gun case in hand, placing it at his feet, removing the numerous components, clicking them into place, and proceeding to check that his shotgun was in fine working order.
This ritualistic upkeep continued until confusion, muddled thoughts, and a dead left arm brought on by a stroke made it increasing difficult for him to do so.
One evening at the dinner table, he confided to the family that he had spent all day trying to assemble his shotgun without luck. Sensing his frustration, I offered to help. My father remained silent.
A few months later, I overheard my dad telling a family friend that he had secretly removed the fore-stock from the gun case, rendering the shotgun useless.
“You just don’t know what the old man is likely to do in his desperate state,” said my dad.
My grandfather died peacefully years later in hospital 2 days after he suffered his second stroke.
He was one of the lucky ones.
Just as my father took measures to prevent a violent death in the family, our lawmakers have a responsibility to do the same for the elderly and terminally ill.
An elderly neighbour who was recently diagnosed with a life terminating illness explained on how he planned to end his life through carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Why this way?” I asked.
“Because my wife does not want a messy death.”
She did not want to find him dead in a pool of blood on the living room rug or discover his corpse hanging from a rope in the back shed where there was chance of the grandchildren catching sight of him in a game of hide and seek.
Funneling poisonous fumes into the family station wagon, preferably in an abandoned industrial lot in Melbourne’s peripheries, seemed a better alternative.
Perhaps. But surely much more can be done for this man and others in a similar predicament.
Undoubtedly the state has dedicated significant funds and attention towards advancing palliative care, as it should continue to do so, especially on the back of voluntary assisted dying laws. But it must also be recognized that for certain people, sustained, unwanted and mandatory palliative care is a form of violence.
The terminally ill ought to be free to say, ‘I appreciate your concern and I acknowledge your commitment to my wellbeing, but I do not wish to see out my dying days under the tyranny of compulsory suffering.’
A deeply religious colleague recently put it to me that supporters of voluntary euthanasia appeal to disingenuous language to garner support for what is, as he put it, ‘state-sponsored suicide’.
“Why call it ‘assisted dying’ or ‘dying with dignity’ when what they really mean is suicide?”
“It probably has to do more with your Church’s attitude to suicide than them” was my reply.
“So, you support suicide?”
“Yes, provided it is managed well.’
The problem with the official religious position on voluntary assisted dying rests with its failure to distinguish between a good and bad suicide.
And the trouble with blanket moral condemnation of suicide, as reflected in an open letter to Victorian parliamentarians penned by the Heads of prominent Christian churches is that there is no way of helping, guiding, advising or monitoring those who choose to die on their own terms and out of institutional care.
With the absence of a legal framework there is in no real way of gauging whether people like my neighbour were of sound mind and free from coercion. And there is no reliable way of knowing if those who died by their own hand were depressed, confused, had second thoughts, or in desperate need of counsel.
But somehow it is legally acceptable to turn a blind eye to such unthinkable acts of self-destruction than to enact laws that offer medical assistance to the terminally and incurably ill who choose to die on their own terms.
These people are compelled to take their life into their own hands because our legislators have washed their hands of them. And those who wish to assist have had their hands tied by a law that unintentionally criminalizes compassion.
If we want the elderly and the terminally ill to live out their life free of violence and the tyranny of mandatory suffering, then we need to encourage our politicians to enact laws that offer a far more humane alternative to unspeakable acts of suicide.
Chris Fotinopoulos is a philosophy teacher and ethicist who taught medical ethics at Monash University and The University of Melbourne. He now teaches philosophy at Ballarat Grammar.