Wednesday 18 July 2018

Ian O'Doherty: After abortion, euthanasia will be our next burning social issue

Final chapter: Australian scientist David Goodall (104) ended his remarkable life in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland on Thursday
Final chapter: Australian scientist David Goodall (104) ended his remarkable life in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland on Thursday
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

For obvious reasons, the last few weeks have seen various words and phrases tossed around with gay abandon.

Compassion is probably the most ubiquitous culprit.

If you landed in Ireland from the moon right about now, you'd be forgiven for thinking that compassion is our most abundant natural resource - because everyone seems to have it. Lots of it.

Every politician I've spoken to in the last few weeks (and that's a lot more politicians than I would normally choose to speak to) has been quick to emphasise just how compassionate they are when it comes to explaining their position on the referendum.

So, if you're campaigning for Repeal, you will say that you are motivated by compassion yet, interestingly, the people who want to maintain the status quo also say they are motivated by the 'C' word.

Yes, everyone has lots of compassion, even though they're using it for diametrically opposed positions, and even though both sides who pride themselves on their compassion don't seem to have much problem calling their opponents either baby killers or God-bothering lunatics.

We also hear a lot about the 'right to life', but one fascinating story this week involves something even bigger than the right to life - the right to a good death.

When 104-year-old Aussie scientist David Goodall first made the news a few years ago, it was for his defiance against being forcibly retired due to his age. He objected to Perth University's efforts to get rid of him and won a landmark ruling which allowed him to remain in work - at the age of 102, he was officially the world's oldest working scientist.

On Thursday, he ended his remarkable life in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, and he went out fighting to the last.

Goodall said that while he was healthy for the majority of his life, once he lost his driving licence a few years ago "it all went downhill from there".

As his sight failed and he was confined to a wheelchair, he attempted suicide in Australia, but failed.

So, lacking the physical wherewithal to end his own life in as painless a way as possible, he crowd-funded the money needed to fly to Switzerland to check out on his own terms.

At his last press conference, surrounded by friends and family - including the indefatigable Irish euthanasia campaigner Tom Curran - Goodall was scathing about Australian politicians who had forced him into this situation, saying: "That politicians should deny old people the right to kill themselves if they so choose, I don't understand that. Maybe they feel obliged by their religion to stop other people killing themselves, but I have no sympathy for that... Shame on them."

Wearing a jumper with the slogan 'Ageing Disgracefully', the botanist was certainly an interesting chap and he had planned everything out, from his last meal (fish and chips and cheesecake for afters) to his final piece of music ('Ode To Joy').

Abortion may be the only hot button game in town in this country at the moment, and the sooner we lance this boil, one way or the other, the better for everyone.

But euthanasia is the next big social issue we will have to tackle, even if the political appetite is not there.

We have an ageing population, a failing health care system and while Irish hospices do genuinely humbling, incredible work (some of the greatest, most decent people I have ever met were those who staff hospices in this country), we are facing into a demographic time bomb which is only going to get worse.

We're not just terrified by death in this country, we're terrified of even talking about it and when the conversation turns to euthanasia, as it inevitably does, people have a tendency to stick their fingers in their ears and hope the matter will just go away. But it won't.

If there was one thing Dr Goodall said which I'd disagree with, it was his assertion that it was religious sensibilities which stopped Aussie politicians from introducing legal euthanasia.

Obviously, religious people will be motivated by their religious belief, but opposition to assisted suicide is not the sole preserve of the faithful.

In much the same way that plenty of atheists are opposed to abortion on moral grounds, the same applies to this vexed issue.

But it all boils to one point - nobody, regardless of their motivation, has the right to force someone to stay alive when they are in pain; pain they know will only get worse.

'My body, my choice' doesn't apply only to abortion, it applies to all of us and anyone who has ever watched a loved one struggle through the last few months of their life, when they would rather be dead, knows that it is obscene to keep someone alive against their will.

Of course, doctors understand this better than anyone else, which is why so many of us will have heard a medic suggesting they can make someone 'more comfortable', which is simply a euphemism for pumping more morphine into their system.

We all have an innate survival instinct, which is why voluntary death is so culturally stigmatised.

But as Dr Goodall and so many others in his predicament have reminded us, sometimes you just know it's time to go, as hard as that may seem. Forcing someone to spend their last months in a painful, undignified limbo is sick and cruel - no matter how 'compassionate' you like to think your argument is.

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