The woman probably appears older. We maybe look at the title of the post, searching for clues. Readers might then divide between those that “Support the option of euthanasia with proper safeguards” and those that “Feel euthanasia is immoral under any circumstance” (plus a few in-between). Every picture perhaps tells a story, but the “story” may be quite different according to our perceptions and prior beliefs.
In real life, we all have particular principles, ideas, skills and knowledge. They are part of who we are. But when we interact with another person, a different sort of thinking also comes into play. Life is not a monologue. Our understanding of another person, of their situation, is modified as we talk with them. What might have been described quite clinically as “the situation” a few moments ago, has maybe developed into what we see as “their situation” and “our reaction.” The ancients called this type of knowledge ‘phronesis’ (φρόνησις), a practical wisdom that was acquired by thinking within a particular situation rather than applying prior knowledge alone.
The lady in the photograph is Dr Gillian Bennett, an eminent psychotherapist who was 83 years old at the time that she took her own life, after careful consideration of the ravages of dementia that she was starting to face.
“There comes a time,” she wrote in the four-page letter that was posted online by her son after her death — as per her request, “in the progress of dementia, when one is no longer competent to guide one’s own affairs. I want out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation, or take action to bring my life to an end.”
Bennett told her family of her plans, but did not allow them to take part: it would be a criminal offence in Canada (where she was living) to assist in a suicide, as it would be in the United Kingdom. She would not even allow her husband to take a mattress to the spot she had chosen to die, worried in case it could cause him trouble. “That pretty much broke his heart, that he couldn’t help her with that,” said her daughter, Sarah Fox.
In some ways physicians, they say, have it easier, since they have fairly ready access to drugs: but no-one can measure the extent of another’s suffering. The strident anti-euthanasia campaigners stay in an ivory tower of technical principles. Perhaps they would not be so judgmental if they sat down and actually listened to patients like Dr Bennett. It would seem that no matter how expert, how competent, how knowledgeable a person is, no matter how unrelievable and unbearable (to them) their situation is, an anti-euthanasia campaigner always thinks they “know best.” They feel doctors cannot be trusted. They feel that the law cannot be crafted to provide sufficient safeguards. Yet common sense says the opposite.
No matter what the prohibitions on voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide, there will still be people who take their own life for very good reasons, some going to Switzerland to make the process where at least some others, their loved ones, can be present. “Certainly, assisted suicide doesn’t lead to more deaths. We’re all going to die anyway,” says Sarah Fox. “It doesn’t lead to more deaths, but it could lead to less suffering.”
Goodbye and Good Luck! Gillian Bennett’s memorial page (written by herself)
Newspaper report (Canadian Press)
Her letter to the Vancouver Sun
British newspaper report, and a video explaining dementia
Empathy and the application of the ‘unbearable suffering’ criterion in Dutch euthanasia practice
Empathy Versus Analytical Reasoning Not So Simple (PsychCentral News Story)