David Goodall had every right to choose euthanasia
LAST week, 104-year-old scientist, British-born Dr David Goodall, left Perth wearing an "ageing disgracefully" top for a one-way trip to the Life Circle Clinic in Liestal, Switzerland to do what the laws in Australia still forbid: end his life voluntarily through assisted suicide or euthanasia.
While at least 40 other Australians have undertaken the same journey, Goodall is the first person without a terminal illness to die this way. His decision to choose death in a society that advocates the opposite has ignited all sorts of passionate debates around the world.
In making the very public passage to Switzerland, what Goodall has also done is made it very clear that neither God/religion nor secular laws own his body. Notwithstanding his grand age, he wrested back autonomy and died on his terms in his own time.
Whatever your thoughts about euthanasia (and I'm a staunch advocate for many reasons which I have outlined in other columns), what Goodall's later life and actions have also drawn attention to are the ways in which we treat the elderly in our society.
A great contributor to his academic field - ecology - for over seventy years, having earned three doctorates, an OA, worked at institutions around the world and published extensively, when the university he worked at, Edith Cowan, tried to prevent him working from his office in 2016 when he was 102, it caused a furore.
Claiming staff were concerned about the Dr's wellbeing - as he caught three kinds of public transport to get to work etc - the powers that be decided he could no longer use the office but had to work from home.
While they later overturned the verdict (with caveats), it typifies what occurs in the life of so many elderly people irrespective of what they've achieved in a lifetime - the way in which the right to choose is taken away from them.
Their desires are overridden by what makes everyone else more comfortable.
Often couched as "it's best for him/her/them", or as Edith Cowan University claimed, "in David's best interests and our own" (as if he was complicit in their decision), what this really means is we're making a choice on their behalf.
The elderly person is infantilised to the point they're not even included in the decision making or, if they are, they feel powerless to protest. Often they don't want to be the burden they're made to feel or wish to make it easier for those they love/respect.
Silence or even agreement doesn't necessarily mean willingness to comply. Nor does it signal happiness with outcomes.
Growing old isn't only about dealing with inevitable physical decline. As your world shrinks - giving up work, certain pleasures (Goodall had to give up his passion for theatre due to failing eyesight), losing close friends and other family - it affects mental health and overall wellbeing as well.
An elderly person may not want to "give up" on life, but when others die, leave, or give up on you, and meaning, connectivity and purpose is lost, then it's hard to do otherwise.
Made to feel redundant, invisible, shunted off to nursing homes and other facilities, the lack of an extended family or even community means elderly people often feel isolated - even in their own (nursing) homes.
So, while the President of the AMA, Dr Michael Gannon, expressed concern about the reasoning behind Goodall's actions and positive responses to them, claiming they're "dangerous", he's failed to even try and comprehend the bigger, starker reality confronting ageing Australians.
He said: "People like Dr Goodall made a decision based on nothing more than they've decided there's nothing more to live for … I have serious concerns about a community where we make arbitrary decisions about whose life is valuable enough to continue and whose should be ended under law."
This decision wasn't arbitrary or about being "valuable" or not, nor did "we" make the decision: Goodall did - about his own long life. What right do we or any others have to take that away from him?
Instead of respecting his decision (which hurt no-one else), various conservative religious and political groups are trying to use it to point score and gain allegiance to their way of thinking.
Believing perhaps they're protecting everyone from those who want euthanasia enshrined in law, what they're really doing is controlling another aspect of our lives: an individual's right (should they choose to exercise it) to make the last choice they'll ever have.
Dr Gannon adds that "a society should aspire to look after people who are struggling and to make sure their lives are worth living for."
Rather than criticise or express horror because an elderly, otherwise healthy person decided to end their life, help make it so worthwhile they don't wish to.
Regardless of age or health, just because you're existing doesn't mean you're living.
Dr Karen Brooks is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, IASH, University of Queensland.
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