Identity politics and dichotomizing dying
by Paul Russell
The 60 Minutes (Australia) current affair program on Channel Nine aired a short piece on euthanasia last weekend.
I was grateful for the 60 Minutes crew for their invitation to be part of the program and for their hospitality and professionalism.
For what it may be worth, I found the story compelling and appropriately emotive at certain points. Who could not be moved by the lead-in story of Kylie Monaghan. Kylie comes from the town of Port Pirie, north of Adelaide and was dying from an aggressive form of breast cancer.
Kylie had lent her support as the face of the Denton campaign for euthanasia called 'BeTheBill' where people could support the cause by lending their names to a euthanasia bill online. Kylie tells 60 Minutes lead reporter, Liz Hayes, that she knows that she will not benefit from the SA Euthanasia Bill were it to become law. Her cancer is aggressive; she is close to the end. She says that she takes up the challenge for the sake of others.
Putting aside the rights or wrongs of euthanasia laws for a moment; this is a truly noble gesture. A dying woman devoting her diminishing energy and time to a cause she believes in. We see vision of her seated with her obviously devoted and caring husband.
Sadly, in the 24 hours before the program aired, Kylie Monaghan passed away, her family saying that she died in a Port Pirie hospital with her husband and family by her side.
Andrew Denton had his own emotional moment with Liz Hayes as she revealed to him that his late father, Kit Denton, had an on-air conversation with her about euthanasia in the 1970s. Denton was clearly moved by this - a deeply honest and somewhat raw yet compelling moment.
From that point, however, the story loses some of its potency, for mine, because of poorly framed questions and some very questionable statements.
Presenter Liz Hayes (to Denton):
"As it stands, what are we legally allowed to do - how are we allowed to die?"
Implicit to this question is the assumption that death is all about negotiating with the law and what the law allows. Are we 'allowed' to die? Is the state somehow at the foot of the bed? Or is this entirely the wrong question. Indeed, it is; but it does allow Denton to focus his answer on creating fear:
"Legally, if you are dying, in a hospital, you can refuse all treatment, including food and water and you can effectively starve yourself and dehydrate yourself until your disease takes its course.
"But, legally you are not allowed, if you are dying, to end your life quickly and painlessly surrounded by medical help and with your family around you, and I find that absolutely astonishing."
Denton's intention seems to be to dichotomise dying: you either starve or dehydrate yourself to death or you can 'end your life quickly and painlessly...' if the law would only allow it! No other options!
This is nonsense. For one thing if you starve or dehydrate yourself, while the underlying disease will clearly still take a toll, you will have probably succumbed to dehydration and not the disease. But there may well be other, less drastic options and alternatives; the kinds of supports and symptom management that allows a person to die with a minimum of discomfort and, yes, surrounded by loved ones.
It is not an 'either or' situation as described by Denton. His is a salespitch; one with a dangerously jaundiced view. At a time when we should be trumpetting the success and efficacy of our medical end-of-life capabilities and building a sense of well-being from such confidence, Denton's rhetoric would tear down the edifice for the sake of his own ends.
Denton is no fool. He knows that there are three or four significant 'voices' in the euthanasia debate that need to be silenced or dismissed if he is to achieve his goal. One of those according to Denton, is religion and religious folk:
"I've got to be careful how I say this, because I don't want to seem too hard about it, but it is what I see as 'cruelty dressed up as compassion' in that those who cloak themselves in 'religious love' as the reason why these laws shouldn't exist, and deny - as they do - that this level of suffering exists are, by that denial, allowing it to continue."
The program then throws to me answering the question: "Are you religious?" in the affirmative. I will never deny who I am for the sake of any argument. In the interview, I went on to explain this but, for their own reasons, the editor decided not to put that part of the answer to air.
But what of Denton's point? He claims that religious folk are denying that 'this level of suffering exists' and, consequently are therefore allowing it to continue. This is pure bunkum and a very tardy example of a strawman argument. He calls it 'cruelty dressed up as compassion' implying either that religious people are totally ignorant of suffering (cruelty by ignorance) or aware but complicit (that they simply do not care).
So, there you go! In one sentence, people of faith are totally dismissed. That is, of course, unless, like Desmond Tutu, you come out in support!
I'm no apologist for organised religion; but there are some facts that Denton is conveniently ignoring here. Religious people and organisations were at the forefront of the creation of what we now know as palliative care and the hospice movement. Western religions have been the main providers of medical and relief services across the globe for centuries. In Australia, religious based hospitals provide more than 60% of all palliative care services. I dare say that, without these church-based organisations, the provision of services in this country would not be at the standard that they are; being the envy of most of the world.
But these facts are not going to get in Mr Denton's way. You see, just as Denton tried to reduce dying to a simple black and white proposition - a dichotomy of dying - his none too veiled attack on religion and, therefore, people who hold to religious precepts is also a simple, divisive and Orwellian proposition: 'Four legs good, two legs bad'.
It's about controlling the debate through the politics of division or what is currently called, 'identity politics'. It seeks to set one group of people against another.
Even if it were true, such politiking is as reckless as it is unnecessary. But it is not true. The opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide is as diverse as the entire Australian community and is inclusive of all comers, regardless of what they believe or hold to be true on any other matter.
It is, perhaps, all the more offensive for those who oppose euthanasia who do not claim any religious affilliation to be 'lumped in' with their religious co-beligerents. But for us, thankfully, what unites us is greater than what divides.