In all modern societies across the world death takes on the form of a fetish. A so-called ‘natural’ death or, in other words, death by disease is the process we force on people because it has the status of being the ‘right thing’ to do. It conforms to the will of authorities both government and church and it conforms with the will of families.
A fetish can be defined in a number of ways: firstly, as an inanimate object valued for attributes that imply the status of the individual; and secondly, as a course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment. To take the first definition, the Death statistics sections of Australian Bureau of Statistics makes it clear that the Australian Government takes pride in the longevity of its citizens. Australia gains status as a civilized nation because of those statistics. If Australians were to take their own length of life into their own hands then those statistics would be unpredictable, and would not therefore be as reliable as indicators of the nation’s status among modern nations.
To take the second definition it is possible to see that Australians have an excessive and irrational commitment to avoiding something that is inevitable, something that everyone will eventually experience: death. We rarely spend time actively talking about death – it’s considered morbid to do so, even though we spend countless hours passively consuming material about death. Even fewer discuss the science of death. The fact that the world we live in, including us, is made of particles that began in the big bang, that everything decays, but that the atoms that we are composed of will live for billions of years to come is information that is to be avoided because it forces us to see that our focus on our death being the end of life is irrational and our death rituals are excessive. Nature will recycle us as she recycles everything, because we are part of the universe. Failure to understand this process makes us place excessive value on this life, even by the religious who supposedly believe in eternal life.
Take this passage from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything:
“[Atoms] are everywhere and they constitute everything. They are fantastically durable. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested-probably once belonged to Shakespeare…. So we are all reincarnations – though short lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to finds new uses elsewhere – as part of a leaf or other human being or a drop of dew. Atoms themselves, however go on practically forever.”
We have an ever-expanding and costly health system, which is another aspect of our fetish with death. The most expensive part of our health system comes from our expenditure on the ageing and the dying. We are prepared to spend any amount of time and money keeping people alive, even those who don’t want to be kept alive. This expenditure is a significant reflection of our status as a first world nation, which we want to maintain, and part of that status is remove decisions about end of life, embedding it in criminal law.
From birth until old age we live under the illusion that our bodies belong to us, but it is terribly important to governments that we have a ‘natural’ death. Suicide and murder represent failures of the fetish. Suicide is especially a failure of our ‘natural’ death fetish. The body that has had a ‘natural’ death represents the values of submission to society’s will, the love of family, growing old gracefully, acceptance of the natural process no matter how ghastly that is, pride in oneself, hanging on to everything one knows, being strong in the face of troubles, denial that your life can be defeated. These are all core values in our culture taken to an extreme that is cruel when we know that ageing and death is the inevitable end of this life.
Suicide is a double failure in that it appears to represent firstly a failure by society to provide for someone so that s/he is happy to live until that blissful ‘natural’ death and it also represents an independence from and nonconformity with the values described above. This is why it is possible to say, with confidence, that we have a fetish with death. The mode of death as represented by the dead body is intimately bound up with status and requires a course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment (high level intervention to keep people alive to avoid facing an inevitable fact of life).
We could free ourselves of this fetish by doing two things: firstly by ending discrimination against people who end their own lives; and secondly, by giving people the option of choosing their time of death either with the assistance of another person or through their own agency.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Section 8 Recognition before the law states that everyone has the right to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction or discrimination of any kind. But people who want to die are intentionally excluded by Crimes Acts around Australia from gaining any help to achieve what they want, i.e. death, which is recognized implicitly as being something they can lawfully do in those same Crimes Acts.
Australian Crimes Acts privilege the opinion that people should endure a ‘natural’ death of the diseases of old age or submit to a degrading and usually painful manner of death i.e. hanging themselves, or acting unlawfully to obtain peaceful means of death. They discriminate against those who hold the opinion that they should be able to undertake their deaths in a safe manner within a modern health system at a time of their choosing.Human rights may be subject only to reasonable limits that can be demonstratively justified in a free and democratic society. Many European countries and U.S. states have demonstrated that it is perfectly reasonable in law to assist a dying person. The Swiss, who have the highest human longevity in the world, have demonstrated that it is possible to provide a reasonable and less restrictive limitation by allowing assisted dying. But in Australia the current fetish with the high status of a ‘natural’ death regardless of circumstances, and the deep shame associated with taking control of one’s own death i.e. the failure to conform to society’s expectations, prevent politicians from loosening their adherence to the status quo.
Australians are repeatedly reported as being in favour of law reform to allow assistance to die, but they are not effective in gaining support for it from politicians. It may be that if we want change in this area that we have to look more deeply at how we overvalue the body that has a ‘natural’ death because of what it represents to us. We need to understand how discriminatory our law is toward people who end their own lives, and how that is implicated in our sense of our status as a country and as individuals. We need to understand how the laws politicians have made in our Crimes Acts control us and how that control is deliberately steering us in the direction of conformity to a death fetish that a scientific understanding of death and modern appreciation.
By Jeanne Arthur: President of Dying with Dignity ACT Inc.
First published on the The Festival of Dangerous Ideas website on 28 Feb 14