Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Assisted Dying

Last night, along with millions of other people in Britain, I watched Terry Pratchett's film on assisted dying, and the Newsnight debate afterwards. When this programme comes to your TV screen, don't miss it. It's kind, honest, compassionate, and addresses—and raises—the issues without flinching, and in the best possible way.

There was much that was unsaid, however, as there had to be in a film of only one hour's duration. Some of these issues were addressed in the somewhat shambolic discussion afterwards, chaired by Jeremy Paxman. It was clear that the opponents to assisted dying had blinkered agendas and weren't listening to anyone else's concerns or the larger issues. Of course there have to be safeguards, but no-one has any quarrel with that.

The disabled woman was understandably worried, almost paranoid, about disabled people being gotten rid of, to the point that she couldn't begin to conceive that there might be other questions, situations, contexts or points of view. She revealed at the end that she was far more interested in getting respect for disabled people than listening to others and responding to the issue at hand.

The appalling Bishop of Exeter—he has already caused some people I know to leave the C of E—prated on about the sanctity of life in the abstract, having told the world that he had just sold his mildly retarded daughter's flat out from under her and rather proudly intimated that she has no rights except what he deems appropriate. He said the choice of life or death was not a 'right' whereas the Pratchett film had been very careful to point out that it is indeed a right under the European declaration.

Let's look at the sanctity of life. You can't mouth platitudes about the sanctity of life when there are not enough hospices, when pain control is not guaranteed, when there is abuse in care homes, and when the elderly are ignored or treated with disdain as intractable and distasteful problems, instead of as human beings; and, further, when the elderly and disabled are bearing the brunt of the financial catastrophe caused by greedy and irresponsible bankers, who, even as the poor get poorer, are making record profits.

A recent BBC film exposed the abuse, even torture of people in care homes. I'm not saying this sort of treatment is universal, but the level of care in most of these institutions is less than basic, to say the least. It is common knowledge that many care homes drug their inmates (there is no other word for it) to make them less trouble, that there is so little stimulation, such poor staff training and monitoring that these inhuman conditions in themselves constitute abuse, passive rather than active. Diana Athill, who has written about her evidently idyllic care home (run by a charity) is a lucky woman, and the care home where she lives an obvious model, but it is the exception, not the rule.

Talking about the sanctity of life under the conditions many elderly people face is a sick joke. The whole idea of 'the market', of making a profit off the elderly—much less younger people who are sick and suffering—is obscene. In the United States people are routinely over-treated—even if they have signed living wills—just so greedy hospitals and doctors can make more money. My father was subjected to unnecessary surgery at the end of his life when there was absolutely no hope of his surviving it, and it would accomplish nothing. He had terminal lymphoma; the intestinal blockage was simply the last event. The hospital and the doctors made tens of thousands of dollars out of this unnecessary suffering inflicted on him.

As for me, I already wear a 'do not resuscitate' bracelet. I am even thinking of having 'DNR' tattooed on my chest. I have signed a living will. I have absolutely no intention of ending my life in a care home. That moment will never come, no matter what I have to do. If by the time I can no longer manage alone there is no legislation and protocol in place that guarantees a safe and comfortable process to help me out of life, then I will have to do the best I can. I will go to Switzerland if I cannot die in the UK, or if that is not possible, I will do what I have to do. I have far too much respect for the sanctity of life to subject mine to the systematic dehumanisation to which far too many elderly and dying people are subjected.


Blogger Stillpoint said...

Thank you once again for your thoughts on these matters. I was reading Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land and saw a footnote that referred to a book of yours. I looked it up online and then stumbled on your blog. That was 3 days ago. I stopped work on my dissertation (which is about Nicholas of Cusa by the way!) and have read only your words since discovering them. I have now read everything you have posted and I am floored. Moved. I do not know how to describe it.

I am a Roman Catholic PhD candidate in comparative theology at Boston College studying the interaction of Buddhism and Christianity. My spiritual journey is a long complicated one but I am very interested in the apophatic path you describe in your writings (knowing your worries about "mysticism", "spirituality" and other such words to describe this path).

I found in my reading your blog posts, that you had confirmed my insights and instincts from my research and prayer over the years. I have always felt that theology needs to be much closer to what you put forth in your writings. I have felt torn knowing on the one hand that I need to move away from "ministry" and "degrees" as you put it -- but realizing the status of the church and wanting to actually do real theology and not the abuses that it has become -- in wanting to create a place that people can be supported in these practices even if they remain in the world without being a solitary or taking formal vows -- I have desired to create that space. And so -- for better or worse -- I have done so.

We are called The Inner Room (Matthew 6:6) and the focus is to offer a contemplative path, to empower lay people in the church to do theology (as you point out -- like Evagrius Ponticus says -- "One who truly prays is a theologian. One is a theologian who truly prays.") and to tie silence and theology in with service.

I write for two reasons. To thank you so much for your presence and your words. And to ask for your prayers as we begin (as we just have begun officially even though we have offered small programs on and off for a couple of years now) so that we remain true to the points you have raised. That we may pursue the mind of Christ that allows for the true glory of God.

3:30 pm, June 14, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your honesty and courage in sharing your stance on this. It will give hope and strength to those who read it especially those facing difficult or impossible circumstances themselves.

4:20 pm, June 14, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Still Point,

Often I really do feel like a voice in the wilderness, and I am deeply humbled by your words and thank God that something got through my muddle, and that you are so generous to say so.

I'm about to give a paper for the Early English Text Society (Cloud of Unknowing); the proceedings will be published in the next volume of "Medieval Mystical Tradition" (D.S. Brewer). There are some things in this paper that might be useful to you. I can't put them on the blog yet because of the conference/book.

However, I do moderate all the comments, so if you would like to see this paper and send me your email you a be assured that it won't get posted!

Bless you, and thank you again.

5:09 pm, June 14, 2011  
Blogger Bo said...

Maggie, this was (as so often) very moving. I couldn't agree more, as well. x

9:03 pm, June 14, 2011  
Blogger Stella said...

Dear Maggie
You may indeed feel like a voice in the wilderness, but rest assured that there are others in the wilderness with you and we hear your voice.

4:13 pm, June 15, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Bo.

Thank you, Stella.

It means a lot to have this support.

4:15 pm, June 15, 2011  
Blogger Barbara A.T. Wilson said...

I am a board certified chaplain in a large hospital, and have been a chaplain for over twenty-years. Unfortunately your observation about the American health system is spot on--although the palliative care/Hospice movement is making inroads. Bless you for speaking the truth, and your truth.

10:57 pm, June 15, 2011  
Anonymous Hanna said...

I work in elder care, in home care rather than a care home and while the issues might be slightly different the causes remain the same. Greed and wanting profits leads to chronic understaffing which no amount of training can compensate for. This in turn locks the people working there in a mindset where they're always trying to be faster and more efficient and I think that's where it's easy to forget that you are working with people. Human beings.

Systematic dehumanisation is the basis for our whole way of life. It's most apparent in our treatment of children, sick and disabled, and the elderly and dying. We live in a very artificial, unnatural way where only those who are able to contribute to economical growth have any value and are easily tossed aside when they no longer contribute.

We can't allow people to care for their own children, parents, grand-parents, disabled cousins, sick neighbours because then they're not earning and spending income so instead we cram these undesirables into institutions to be cared for by trained (or untrained) professionals who do earn and spend money.

Despite constant talk of improvement it always seems more important that things appear good than that they actually are. (And I don't think improvement is needed so much as a different mindset altogether.)

1:17 pm, June 16, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you Kiotihere and Hanna. It's good to hear from professionals in the field. I couldn't agree with you more.

1:39 pm, June 16, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Jane Smith from Pretoria, South Africa, writes:

Dear Maggie

I just want to join Stella's voice and say that, however it appears, you are not alone in your solitary calling and that your blogspot is one of the oases I visit to reassure myself that I'm not going mad.

I bought your "Power, priesthood and spiritual maturity" a few months ago via Amazon and it's a book I wish I'd read years ago.

Your blogpost on assisted dying was thoughtful and sane - I'd love to see you write something on abortion (my stance on this subject drove me out of the church many years ago).

Do, do keep writing.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

9:21 am, June 24, 2011  

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