Death with dignity

Rafi Alam puts the proposed euthanasia bill into perspective

Rafi Alam puts the proposed euthanasia bill into perspective

I discovered the 1970s film Johnny Got His Gun when I was 14. It’s a dark anti-war film about a soldier who, after severe injuries that leave him limbless, blind, deaf, and mute, is put in a hospital and thought to be comatose. I was deeply affected by the film, as – I can imagine – most of its viewers were.
Beyond the distorted hallucinations of wartime trauma and the sober memories of absent lost love was a more profound point: at the end of the film, Johnny realises he can move his head, and he communicates, repeatedly, to the nurse by tapping his head in morse code that he wants to die. The nurse acquiesces, but she is soon foiled by a military official.
The film ends with a paralysed Johnny, alone in his bed, wondering how he can continue living in his borderline unconscious world, as the camera pulls out and the screen fades to black. The tragedy is unlike that of most cinema –- the absence of death. Euthanasia was the solution to his suffering, but it breached the moral code of his time, and was disallowed.
The NSW Parliament is considering a bill to legalise euthanasia and, as most bills on ‘life or death matters’ are, the vote is one of conscience. The bill is being championed by Greens MLC Cate Faerhmann, and a campaign is underway to attempt to convince members of all parties to vote in favour.
Johnny Got His Gun deeply affected my position on euthanasia, and later I became a staunch advocate of the right to die. But I became more aware of the film’s personal impact when I saw a video featuring Faerhmann and the face of the current pro-euthanasia campaign, Loredana Alessio-Mulhall. Loredana, much like Johnny, is becoming trapped inside her body; unlike Johnny, she was not injured in war, but perhaps more tragically, has become entirely immobile due to multiple sclerosis (MS). Like Johnny, she is only able to move her head. Unlike Johnny, she does not want to die yet, and is still able to talk. But she faces the same fate – locked-in syndrome, conscious but vegetated. She knows that one day she will want to die, on her own terms.
Currently, helping Loredana die is considered murder in NSW. It is considered immoral by the political class, despite consistently over 70% of respondents being in favour of voluntary euthanasia. It is considered an attack on the vulnerable, despite a case where twins in Belgium consented and chose to die, peacefully, in unison, over being permanently blind and deaf from each other.
I believe that euthanasia is a right based on common-sense understandings of freedom, but I also think that Loredana’s case – and those like her – forces us to consider euthanasia as a social issue as well, in the same vein as healthcare. Universal healthcare is a safety net that saves us from hitting the bottom; voluntary euthanasia saves those who are ‘locked-in’ from the endless, eternal fall through the bottomless pit of their condition.
It’s difficult to really comprehend what people like Loredana are going through. It’s that confirmed inability to escape. It’s that realisation that no one can help you. I think of people wrongly put on death row, or refugees turned back to their country. But as morbid as this may sound, death is still an exit. For people ‘locked in,’ there is absolutely no escape. Loredana talks about how the only action she can do is breathe into a tube to make phone calls in the seventeen hours a day she is left without a carer, completely alone. I think of the film and Johnny telling himself: “if I had arms I could kill myself.”
I’m not sure if this bill will pass. In all probability, it won’t. But it brings shame upon our parliamentary system that the politicians in opposition are unable to even consider the reasons as to why a person would need to die. It is about freedom and dignity, and it is about a system where we show compassion and hope to those with none, even when the act of charity is assisting someone to end their life.

Filed under:
Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

Michael Spence

Michael Spence: the fair controller?

The Vice Chancellor has been in the role for almost a decade; his drive to reshape the University seems to have only grown.