Review
Assisted dying
Life & Death
5 min read

The dying decision: choice, coercion and community

Plan 75 reveals a lot about our relationlessness, says Siân Brookes as she reviews the Japanese drama about medical assistance in dying

Sian Brookes is studying for a Doctorate at Aberdeen University. Her research focuses on developing a theological understanding of old age. She studied English and Theology at Cambridge University.

In a retirement home, a older person sings karaoke while the person behind waves a hand.
Chieko Baishô plays Michi.
Happinet.

“Being able to choose when my life will end provided me with peace of mind. With no feelings of doubt. She led a good life on her terms, people will say”.  

In Chie Hayakawa’s recent dystopian drama Plan 75, these are the words of a silver-haired, wrinkled woman in a promotional video for the eponymous plan – a government scheme which offers all over 75-year-olds the option of a pain-free death at the time of their choosing.  

And yet for Michi, an older lady toying with the decisions around Plan 75 it doesn’t really feel like it is her choice which matters at all. Whether it is the $1,000 grant offered as an incentive to die, the luxury amenities on offer at the Plan 75 facility promoted in leaflets and magazines, or the young person employed to gently guide the candidates towards their death (but whose real job it is to make sure they follow through with it), this is a world which has a clear agenda – to rid society of older people. Indeed, it is clear that this is a vision of a world which believes it is better for old people to die than to put financial burdens on the economy or their families, and this is a culture willing to subtly coerce individuals to accept and act on that belief.  

Plan 75 reveals an interesting point at the heart of the MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) debate. One of the primary reasons that MAiD is so attractive is the ability to take back control of one’s life and death, yet what happens when that seeming control isn’t really within the individual’s own control at all? For Plan 75, what is marketed as giving control back to older people, is really just a twist on a more sinister political policy to pressure individuals to sacrifice their “burdensome” lives for the greater good. Of course, this is a common argument for rejection of assisted suicide. This is the dangerous ‘slippery slope’, where MAiD begins as an option only for those who desperately need it to relieve intense physical suffering. Yet it quickly becomes a tool to remove people whose lives no longer seem worth living due to societal expectations and opinions, rather than any objective reality.  

Do we ever truly choose to die totally independent of the expectations of those around us? 

For many, this problem can be appeased through strict legal controls over MAiD – as long as the powers that be are regulated, MAiD is still OK. As long as it is the individual who maintains control over their own death (and not the state), the goal of personal autonomy is maintained and all is well. And yet this perspective fails to ask the question - is such control over our own death ever actually possible? Do we ever truly choose to die totally independent of the expectations of those around us? In a world which places so little value on old age, can older people really make choices unaffected by that (deeply flawed and inhumane) logic? And, indeed - the elephant in the room – no matter how much we try to control death, in the end is it not death that ultimately controls us? As fundamentally finite beings we can never escape it completely – it will always find us one way or another. Ultimately, we will all have to face the reality of death when it comes to us. Complete control and autonomy are never truly possible. 

In light of this unveiling, the possibility that complete choice and autonomy around death isn’t really an attainable goal, what better options might we pursue? 

Where previously we would find comfort and hope in being loved, known and held by others in our death, now all too often this isn’t the case. 

One thing is clear in Plan 75, the isolation and loneliness of older people in a society that has rejected them is deeply problematic. The movie primarily follows the stories of Michi, who lives alone with no family and Yukio Okabe, an older man totally estranged from his remaining family. Both face life, and are facing death, alone. We live in a world where increasingly we are forced to face death alone. When our final days and hours rarely happen in the family home, surrounded by our loved ones, but in faceless institutions devoid of lifelong meaningful relationship the sense that we are no longer doing death together as a society is acute. Where previously we would find comfort and hope in being loved, known and held by others in our death, now all too often this isn’t the case.  

At the same time, there is no doubt that our modern world is unceasingly committed to the ideal of individual personal agency and autonomy – “She led a good life on her terms”. As a myriad of philosophers and theologians have commented, belief in human autonomy has come to replace belief in God. And MAiD is one area which reveals this to be the case most acutely. Where previously we would turn to God to find comfort in the face of our finitude, instead now we turn to ourselves – the last hope we find in the face of death is our individual ability to control it.   

Death and health should be a corporate phenomenon – when one person is ill, all of society is ill. 

The German theologian Eberhard Jüngel described death in this broken world as “the occurrence of complete relationlessness”. In fact, Jüngel suggests that as human beings we are first and foremost made up of our relationships – we are truly human not by how we self-define in isolation but how we relate – how we relate to the God who made us, and how we relate to other people. This need for relationship is found most acutely in the face of death. As Ashley Moyse points out in his book, Resourcing Hope for Ageing & Dying in a Broken World, death and health should be a corporate phenomenon – when one person is ill, all of society is ill. And so, as death increasingly becomes the journey of the individual – when we face death in isolation from others and in isolation from God no wonder we feel such a strong desire towards control, towards ending our lives prematurely, towards science to help us avoid any more pain than we can bear alone. 

In Plan 75 we see glimmers of hope in the possibility of relationship. As Michi and Yukio find rare moments of human connection with a long-lost nephew, with a young person working for Plan 75, with another older person going through the same questions around mortality you can’t help but feel deeply uncomfortable with their choice to apply for the scheme. It is in the hints of love, physical touch, smiles exchanged, even a simple conversation shared between two people that suddenly MAiD seems so disconnected with the hope that life still has to offer through relationship. Perhaps if we could imagine a world where death became no longer an occurrence of complete relationlessness, but a locus for relational dependence, for familial connection, for leaning on God and not ourselves, the need for MAiD would feel a little less necessary. It would be a world with a little more hope. 

Article
Assisted dying
Comment
Life & Death
5 min read

The careless conflation of independence, autonomy and dignity

As Jersey begins to legalise assisted dying, there’s keyword confusion.
A elderly women in a care home stands and places her hands on the shoulders of a seated woman.
Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Reviewing Canada’s legislation on assisted dying, one anonymously authored article raises the concern: “Does it make dying with dignity easier than living with dignity?” This insightful question cuts to the centre of the debate: dignity. Or more particularly, the unwitting conflation of dignity with independence, and of independence with autonomy.  

As Jersey becomes the first place in the British Isles to begin the process of legalising assisted dying, I feel that we should listen carefully as to how and where these terms are being used, both in the formal debate, and in the commentary that surrounds it. The States Assembly in Jersey voted to allow the development of assisted dying legislation for those with six months to live (or twelve months if their condition is neurodegenerative). A second vote to make assisted dying available more broadly to those who experience conditions that entail “unbearable suffering” was defeated by a narrower margin. Reading the flurry of press releases that followed the vote, these keywords, autonomy, independence, and dignity, are everywhere. But are we really thinking about what these words communicate?  

People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position.

The word dignity comes from the Latin word dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, and this is still the primary definition given to the English word dignity today. The OED has it as “the quality of being worthy or honourable”, immediately followed by reference to “honourable or high estate”. If this is so, then dignity is not something that can be bought, nor assumed – it is a status conferred upon someone by the esteem in which other people hold them. The haughtiest person in the world can still be esteemed undignified, as can the richest. Moreover, the opposite is also true: we are never prevented from conferring dignity upon, and esteeming the worthiness of, those who live the humblest of lives.   

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves – do many of us not quietly associate the idea of becoming rich and powerful with becoming dignified? Do we not tend to assume the worthiness of those in high office – at least until we meet them and realise pretty quickly that they all put their trousers on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. This association happens because we have such a tendency to conflate dignity with independence (the ability to live without assistance from others) and autonomy (the ability to make one’s own decisions, and not have those decisions limited or interfered with). People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position. It is society who sees the autonomy of those in high status, and esteems it as dignified.    

Does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified? 

Repeatedly ancient wisdom, in the bible, warns us not to assume that dignity comes with the freedom of wealth or power. All the great ‘heroes’ of that book suffer their indignities. Fresh from the success of his Ark project, Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Elated from a victory against an enemy, King David dances half-naked through the streets. These are just two examples of the catalogue of embarrassments and mishaps that beset nearly all the kings and leaders whose stories are told as part of the Christian story. One after another, they stumble and struggle with life and leadership. The apostle Paul explains that this is because God uses the foolish things of this world to shame human pride, “for even the foolishness of God is still wiser than human wisdom.” Therefore, Paul argues, God chooses to speak to us through the weak and the lowly things and people of this world. Never was this demonstrated so clearly as when Jesus was born in a draughty stable, lived a life of poverty, and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  

But what has all this to do with the debate over assisted dying? Well, I am struck by how often the idea of losing one’s independence (through disabling or terminal illness) is conflated with losing one’s dignity, and so dying through personal choice (autonomy) is presented as regaining it. One campaign group that speaks to this debate even calls itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ – but does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified?  

Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone. 

The Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend Mike Keirle, has spoken of his concern that the change in legislation will make vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives. Examples from Canada, where physician assisted dying is already available, show that his concern is not unfounded. In 2022, Canadian veteran and Paralympian Christine Gauthier phoned her caseworker to chase up the over-due installation of her new wheelchair ramp. She then describes how she was horrified to find herself being advised to consider assisted dying instead.  

"It is remotely just what they're doing,” says Gauthier, “exhausting us to the point of no return. […] I was like, 'Are you serious?' Like that easy, you're going to be helping me to die but you won't help me to live?"

Gauthier is not alone – she spoke out when she learned that four other Canadian veterans had reported similar experiences. In these unhappy moments, one can see how dangerous the assumption can be – the assumption that no one would want to live a life of needing help. Here are disabled people who do want to live, and this assumption, this careless conflation of independence, autonomy, and dignity, leaves them fighting for their right to do so. Why should anyone have to fight or even speak for their right not to commit suicide? It is little wonder that disabled actress, Liz Carr, describes assisted dying legislation as “terrifying” for disabled people. 

I respect that there are terminally ill people, and those who love them, who speak from a desire to end their suffering; it is clear that people on all sides of the debate need to have this difficult and emotionally charged conversation. But whatever the eventual outcome in terms of legislation, we must be careful that it is not based on careless assumptions, or on the conflation of one thing with an entirely different other. Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone – it is a state that can be conferred whenever, and upon whomever society chooses to confer it. Autonomy is the matter in question – we are talking about autonomy in dying. And whatever happens, we should by no means legislate in a way that leaves disabled people esteemed unworthy, left open to the indignity of fighting for their right to live.