This week my home state, Victoria, passed a law, known as the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act. This gives anyone suffering a terminal illness, with less than six months to live, the right to end their life. Just writing those words takes my breath away.
Right now I can’t imagine myself approaching my GP and asking for his assistance to end my life, or the life of someone I love, seeing it as a viable alternative to living with the pain, lack of dignity and personal control that I know from experience can accompany terminal illness.
The Catholic Church teaches that ‘intentionally causing one’s own death, or suicide, is equally as wrong as murder; such an action on the part of a person is to be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan.’
And again, ‘Life is a gift of God, and on the other hand death is unavoidable; it is necessary, therefore, that we, without in any way hastening the hour of death, should be able to accept it with full responsibility and dignity.’
Easy to write, but difficult beyond words when you or someone you love is facing a terminal illness. My husband Terry, at age 58 was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease, a progressive neurological condition that attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Gradually messages stopped reaching the muscles, affecting his ability to walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe. Eighteen months later he died in palliative care. He lived life right up to the last afternoon when he had watched the cricket, before his lungs stopped supporting his breath.
What gave him strength during the eighteen months of his dying was his deep-seated acceptance that life is a gift of God and the support he received from family, friends, the church community and palliative care.
God gifts you and me and every person that has ever drawn breath, with life. But we don’t get to pick and choose the basics, like genes and health and time, any more than when and how life on earth will meld into eternal life- that unknown we call ‘heaven’.
Ten years ago I had the awe-full experience of ‘seeing’ my unborn grandchild through the wonder that is an ultrasound scan. I marvelled at what I saw -a beating heart, half the size of a man’s thumbnail, fingers and toes, ten of each, minute kidneys, a perfect, miniature spinal cord and, delightfully, a little tongue practising sucking. Driving home the words of the psalmist floated into my mind: “You created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb. For so many marvels I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders.”
The apostle Paul described each and every one of us as ‘God’s work of art’. Male or female, young or old, we’re made in the image of God, and like a picture, a poem, or a sculpture, we’re not finished, complete, until the last paint stroke, the last ‘just right’ word or final chip of the chisel.
For those of us who get to stand by and watch a loved one slowly die, it could be tempting to take the paint brush or sculptor’s chisel out of God’s hand and say, “Enough!”