Dying: why not a referendum?

Death is certain, but older people observe frailer elders closing on finality in nursing homes and think there should be a better way, and an ultimate choice, without penalty. Former ACT Speaker Greg Cornwell believes it’s time for a national referendum.

Why not a federal referendum?

By Greg Cornwell*

It’s probably my age, but I’m paying a lot more attention to nursing homes these days…and I don’t much like what I see.

Don’t misunderstand me, the buildings are clean and comfortable, the staff helpful and attentive – although a few people more would not go amiss – and clearly they have the interests of their elderly charges at heart.

No, the problem is the unavoidable institutional nature of the places: the small rooms in which so few treasures of a lifetime can be kept, the dining arrangements with their fixed seating, the monotonous regularity of taking a variety of medicines, the lonely passage of time and, particularly, the circumstances in which so many of the elderly live, surrounded by death and incarcerated in increasingly secure, prison-like accommodation.

Why does society inflict such unpleasantness upon the vulnerable aged?

Why aren’t people who for the most part have lived decent, responsible, law-abiding lives allowed the dignity of leaving this life upon their own terms?  There are constant public references to the barbarity of the death penalty for convicted criminals, yet nothing of the “non-death penalty” for people who have been convicted of no crime except age itself.  We treat old and infirm pets better than this.

It’s time we looked compassionately at this callous approach to keeping people alive at great public expense whether or not they wish to so exist, while glibly talking of and strongly defending freedom of choice in so many other areas of our society.

Because this is what death for these people should come down to: an option.  Aged people should be allowed to decide legally the timing of their death if they so wish.

It should not be the decision of law-makers completely removed from an individual’s circumstances to anonymously rule that a person should live in pain and anguish, perhaps comatose, dribbling, incontinent, no dignity, no self-respect, whether or not they want to.  Nor should it be the prerogative of religions to dictate to our law-makers that a democratic choice about dying should not be granted.

Why can’t we have some signed instruction while still of sound mind, like that of an organ donor, directing action be taken for a mercy death, whereby the patient willingly takes their own life?

Ironically, the freeing up of the law in this contentious area probably would lead to a more humane method of dying.  It certainly would be an improvement upon the hypocritical mercy killings we all know are being carried out around the country where people in agonizing pain are fed increased dosages of drugs until death inevitably occurs.  It also would spare the patient and their loved ones much torment, allowing goodbyes to be taken at a time of their own choosing.

Again perhaps it is my age and that of my contemporaries but any talk on the subject of death generally brings forth support for a pill.  What’s stopping it at least being examined?

We’ve all heard the claims such death could be abused by greedy or unscrupulous friends and relatives, that people might change their minds, even that any level of diminished quality of life is better than no life at all.

Mercy death, however, is an option exercised by the patient in advance of a complete breakdown of faculities and could be available following medical advice the condition is terminal.  As for the life-at-all-costs claim, I suggest it is more likely to be supported by the fit and healthy rather than the sufferer.

How often have those of us visiting a sick elderly person listened to the pitiful cry they don’t want to live anymore, that they would like to die?  Why should their human rights be forfeited by the prejudices of a section of society?  Such an ignoble end is not my desire, nor that of many people of my age with whom I have spoken, and thus I ask why our freedom of choice to die when we wish is not recognised?

Surely humanity – and this is the appropriate word – successfully can address any and all concerns in this controversial issue, and establish rules and regulations to be followed by those who wish to exercise this option in enfeebled old age.  Perhaps then the sad sight of decaying elderly people deteriorating unasked through no fault of their own in our nursing homes will diminish in our civilized country.

So how about a national referendum upon death with dignity, allowing elderly people to have the right to die at a time of their own choosing?  This would place the peoples’ wishes before federal parliament upon a matter that is too important to be left to a small group of elected representatives who can be too easily influenced by sectional interests.

  • Greg Cornwell AM is a former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the ACT.
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