Listen: Bio-ethicist Margo Somerville in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
The things a society celebrates are markers for its values. For instance we celebrate life, but we never celebrate death. When we gather to mourn a person who has died it is the value we placed on their life that dominates our thoughts. We celebrate what they meant to their family, friends and the wider community but mourn their loss.
From a Christian perspective, how could we not believe in the primary value of human life? Made in the very image of God himself every person is precious. As Godly image-bearers we carry inherent dignity.
There’s a sense of injustice here – that death robs us of such a precious thing as life. I am reminded that Jesus cried with Mary and Martha at the loss of their brother Lazarus. In Jesus God paid an incredible price so that death would not have the final say.
Our belief in preserving life is so strong that when someone takes another person’s life it is a crime not just against that person but against the whole community – in fact against humanity itself. And if death comes by a person’s own hand we are presented with an emotional paradox so deep as to be almost irreconcilable. We ask why, what-if and if-only, and there are no satisfactory answers. Again we are drawn with vigour to celebrate the life that was, not the action that ended it.
Recently however, wittingly or otherwise, some of our media were drawn into the celebration of an assisted suicide in an uncritical way that overturned that convention and challenged our values about the sanctity of life itself.
The death of Australian academic David Goodall in an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland, was hailed by supporters as some sort of victory for the cause of euthanasia. Dr Goodall himself spoke of his hope that it would somehow contribute to law reform in Australia. What an appalling outcome that would be.
The usual grounds on which pro-euthanasia arguments are made relates to severe incapacity or terminal illness. This had none of that. By his own admission Dr Goodall, aged 104, simply did not want to live any more. As might be expected his eyesight and mobility were deteriorating but no case was made on the grounds of terminal illness or ongoing suffering.
If the Goodall case was ever to be adopted as the benchmark for a permissible suicide, or “physician assisted death” then our society would be in deep, deep trouble.
Alongside the death of Dr Goodall itself, many aspects of this story were disturbing. Supposedly dispassionate news reports contributed to the sense that the only thing at stake in physician-assisted death is the personal choice of an individual.
Watching and reading the coverage I could not help but be dismayed at the attempt by the Euthanasia lobby to manipulate public opinion and undermine society’s most basic values.
Do no harm is for media too
Mindframe, a National Media Initiative funded by the Government’s National Suicide Prevention Initiative, warns that “Research from more than 100 international studies suggests that reporting about suicide deaths has been associated with increased rates of suicide and suicide attempts following reporting. Risk generally increases where the reporting focuses on an individual who has died (especially celebrities), where the reporting is prominent and repeated, where the death is glamourised or glorified, and where the method and location is detailed”.
Yet that is how the Goodall death played out in some of our media. The journey to Switzerland, last meals with family and friends, images of the gleaming, efficient facility (how dehumanising!) and even his reported last words (“this is taking an awfully long time”) played out like coverage of a celebrity event. There’s a real question mark, for me, about how and even whether events like this should be covered at all.
Because of the significant harm that can result from unthinking and inappropriate coverage, the reporting of suicide is specifically covered by media Codes of Practice. They address the risk factors identified by the research and do not, for instance “glamorise or glorify” death. I see the Goodall case as an attempt to bypass those Codes and undermine efforts to prevent community harm. It should be a wake up call for us all.
Thankfully some media resisted attempts by those ‘spinning’ the euthanasia angle and gave space to the debate rather than the event. They gave coverage to groups such as the AMA whose president Michael Gannon described pro-euthanasia laws as “dangerous” and, like us, questioned why it should be “celebrated”.
On Open House we had an in depth conversation with bio-ethicist Margo Somerville about the difficulty in discussing complex ethical issues such as euthanasia in the various forums of mass media today.
Simple versus complex
Euthanasia can be distilled to simple (and simplistic) propositions; that the relief of suffering is it is good and that a person’s choice to end their own life is effectively a private one without consequences for the wider community. The Dr Goodall case is an example of the latter argument.
As Professor Somerville said in our recent conversation, when it comes to the relief of suffering as the result of a medical condition the motives of pro-euthanasia campaigners are good. This reflects a key societal value and certainly reflects the heart of a loving God.
But it does not follow that the best we can do to relieve such suffering is to take a life. Among other things, Dr Somerville argues, this is a total contradiction of the underlying ethic of the medical profession: to do no harm. Many people commit their life’s work to the ethical and appropriate relief of pain. A whole branch of medicine is dedicated to it – palliative care – and we have many excellent practitioners in this country.
Making the case for a non-euthanasia approach to the relief of pain is more complex, especially as it endeavours to tell of the wider consequences such as those for the medical profession, for people with disabilities, for the aged an infirmed or anyone who may think of themselves as a ‘burden’.
Our media has an implicit obligation to to tell a more complete story. More particularly we completely agree with Margo’s assessment that one way to counter the tyranny of simple messages is to help generate a sense of awe and wonder at the world God made.
To intentionally cause death crosses a line that we mustn’t cross and to celebrate such an event diminishes us.
Those who celebrated Dr Goodall’s death in Switzerland crossed that line. Suicide, in any form, must never be celebrated, yet that is what happened in this case. Through their uncritical coverage of the Goodall case some of our media, wittingly or unwittingly, participated in an attempt to shift the goal posts of a fundamental value of society – the prime value we place on human life.
To listen to the podcast of our conversation with Professor Margo Somerville click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.
For assistance with thoughts of self harm please call Lifeline: 13 11 14