Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu did us a favour when he came out in support of assisted dying, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu did us a favour when he came out in support of assisted dying, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - The fact of our existence is a mystery that can drive an overactive mind nuts. Little wonder, then, that some of us take a philosophical leap into the arms of God.

I sometimes wish I could abandon my commitment to evidence-sensitive belief, and become a believer too. It just might help soothe anxieties about existence, life’s meaning and how to live well.

But I suspect I will fail. Outsourcing my personal yearning for answers to a mysterious being won’t satisfy me emotionally or intellectually.

And, at any rate, even believers find themselves all-too-human when life throws certain challenges in their direction.

This is precisely what I realised when I asked my listeners on Power Talk the other day what their views were on Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s support of assisted suicide or euthanasia. Many identified as Christian, and yet, even so, their reflections on dying, and death, transcended our differences about deities.

It became clear to me that there must be a near universal desire to not die in an undignified manner, if possible. This yearning isn’t dependent on specific moral codes or beliefs about our place in the universe. It is a basic desire.

I had to choke back tears when one woman – call her Nomsa – told me about the pain of her brother’s terrible dying process. He had been fit and healthy, and one day started getting the most horrible case of hiccups. They took him to a doctor, and he had to be hospitalised. In the days and weeks thereafter he wasted away, losing consciousness and slowly slipping towards death.

The doctor called the family and explained that their son, their brother, would never recover. There was nothing they could do for him. Nomsa said that he had become so ill that his body started smelling, even after it had been cleaned by nursing staff. Some family members could no longer muster the strength to go and visit him.

Nomsa’s dad summoned a family meeting, and they considered the medical facts the doctor had told them. They discussed every angle from the religious to witchcraft, and eventually their dad said they had to take a decision as a family. After a painful discussion, the family decided to end the suffering of their son and brother, and agreed to have the plug pulled.

As fate would have it, and this was particularly what touched me about Nomsa’s story, her brother died anyway just before they could tell the doctors what they had decided. But they remain comfortable with the decision they had agreed on.

She would never wish such suffering upon anyone, and so supports Archbishop Tutu’s view that the right to euthanasia should be respected, and law formulated to enable it.

I agree with Nomsa, and with the Arch. Tutu had recently written about his view in a UK publication, and made it clear that he would not want his family to keep him on machines once the doctors indicate he could not recover from the final stages of illness. Tutu was brave enough to even open up an awkward can of worms, doing so with his characteristic commitment to honesty. He remarked on how his friend, one Nelson Mandela, did not need to suffer for so long.

I am surprised, but very glad, that he has not experienced too much backlash for having this view, and having expressed it.

He used his moral authority to express an opinion about Madiba’s final stages that many would not even utter around the dinner table.

So, why do we not have laws that allow for active euthanasia even? Let’s disentangle the issues.

First, and most importantly, I support euthanasia, both so-called passive and active euthanasia, on the basis of valuing someone’s autonomy enough to respect his or her desire to die.

It is strange that we can place enormous value on the individual in liberal democracies, from which we derive a range of fundamental rights like the right to freedom of expression and the right to dignity, and yet we are prepared to ignore a rational being’s considered view about how they want to die and under what circumstances.

It doesn’t make sense, and probably reflects the powerful, sometimes silent, influence of religion on public policy, more so than being a policy position that is supported by argument independent of religious influence.

But we need to be honest. Life – existence – isn’t intrinsically worthwhile, intrinsically valuable. Unless you draw a quick line from God’s wishes and intentions to every human being.

But that view, I’m afraid, will have to deal with the enormous philosophical challenges religious belief continues to struggle with, metaphysically and morally.

What I mean can only be expressed practically. Nomsa’s brother, at the point where he was not recognisable to himself, not recognisable to his family, friends, colleagues and others, and suffering a physical condition from which he could not medically recover, cannot be described as living a meaningful, valuable or worthwhile existence.

To pretend that Mr Mandela, in the final days of his existence, still constituted a worthwhile and dignified life is to abuse religious or cultural beliefs at the expense of a person’s entitlement to dignity being respected and upheld.

And this isn’t about “playing God”, as some casually and lazily retort, very often. It is about a medically informed decision about the quality of life of the dying person, and their prospects of recovering.

If we accept this principle of respecting people’s autonomy, and the right to die in a dignified manner, which must include the hastening of death itself, then the real public discussion must be about what policy to choose to uphold these principles. And that is where I wish the debate would move, quickly.

Passive euthanasia simply means withholding any life-prolonging medical interventions, which hasten the dying process.

Active euthanasia is a little more controversial, referring to medical interventions that speed up the dying process, such as a lethal injection.

I do not understand why there is a sharp distinction drawn between these. If the principles are the same – respect my autonomy, and respect my desire to die in a dignified manner – then public policy must allow for both passive and active euthanasia.

We need a policy that can give further expression to respecting my autonomy, and my desire to die with as much dignity intact as possible.

We get enormous joy from being alive, and even painful experiences have merit in our lives over a long period of time. In fact, a life filled solely with ecstasy would not be a recognisably human life.

Losing loved ones, breaking up with a lover, going through illness, career ups and downs, battling weight, feeling lonely, and other seemingly painful experiences are all part of the human condition.

And, frankly, I think “pain” gets a bad rap: It can often propel us to dig deeper, and ultimately live more worthwhile lives.

But let’s not confuse these natural ups and downs of a full life with the gruesome reality of how undignified dying can be when you are no longer, in any meaningful sense, a person.

I do not wish to live a life devoid of pain. But I certainly wish to die as painlessly as possible, and to no longer exist if the prospects of recovering, medically, are non-existent.

Like Tutu, I hope my family will respect my desire to die, should I find myself in the same situation as Nomsa’s brother.

It is selfish to stare at me plugged into machines with no hope of recovering, even if you stare with tears rolling down your cheeks.

Put my dignity first, kindly.

Picture Caption: Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was brave to openly support assisted dying, says the writer. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams.

By Eusebius McKaiser

Eusebius McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7 weekdays 9am till noon. McKaiser studied at Rhodes University.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Article Source: The Star