Physician Assisted Suicide and the Dark Side of Radical Individualism

May 11, 2018

On Thursday, May 10, Dr. David Goodall, a highly respected scientist who continued his botanical and ecological research well into old age, traveled to Basel, Switzerland to end his life at the age of 104. A longtime advocate for physician-assisted suicide, Dr. Goodall left his native Australia to make this final journey, aided by a GoFundMe page that quickly went viral and surpassed its modest goal. These sad events raise a host of questions about everything from human freedom to the sanctity of life. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss these issues, and consider how Christianity modifies our understanding of life and death.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
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If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your cohost, Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron M.: Well, today we're going to talk about a story that caught Nathan's eye recently, about an aging Australian scientist who wants to really experience the end of his life on his own terms. It's a pretty striking and actually a pretty haunting story. So Nathan, why don't you tell us a little bit about it, why it caught your eye, and what you think is interesting about it.

Nathan R.: Sure. So, the main in question here, who we're speaking about is David Goodall, a scientist in Australia, and really a fascinating light. If you go online and read about what he's done. He's one of the oldest working scientists in the country, I think, 103 years old and still working at the university, advising PhD students and reviewing papers. Really just a fascinating character but is in a spot where he's decided that time to move on for him.

The way that things are set up in Australia, you don't have some of the, maybe what we would call, right to life laws they do in other parts of the world. So he can't legally take his own life. In fact, he did attempt suicide and woke up in the hospital. So right now, he's in the process of traveling to Switzerland to end his life there with the help of the medical staff there. So that's the big picture.

Part of the thing that is interesting for us, for Cameron and myself as we started looking at this is, there's a GoFundMe page to help his trip. So as of this morning, and of course this was recorded before, if his plan goes as he plans May 10th is his last day and we're recording this before that. But as of right now, he's just shy of $21,000 on his GoFundMe page with a goal of 15,000.

So some interesting phrasing and wording there on the GoFundMe page of why people are deciding to contribute in support to this man to go do this and some of the ways that that's been pitched to. So we want to think out loud a little bit about some of the issues involved in this case, but maybe even more broadly in death with dignity cases and euthanasia and that sort of thing. So that's where we're headed.

Cameron M.: I think one of the interesting features on the page that Nathan's referring to here is we've got...It's quite well-worded. If you're familiar with GoFundMe pages, you've probably seen quite a few. They tend to vary in degrees of quality. As you know, some of them are a little bit more piecemeal. Some of them are a little bit more elaborate.

This one is definitely pretty elaborate. It's filled with photographs and it really catalogs David Goodall's career as an academic, as well. But some of the interesting kind of, I'm tempted to almost say, sort of accusations. There's a kind of accusatory tone as you go further down. But it says, "Elder abuse? Quite possibly." And then it says, "Age discrimination. Absolutely."

So very much the wording is kind of rights wording, I would say that what's happening here and if you read through the page, you'll find out that Dr. Goodall has had this plan actually for quite a while. I think one of the sort of forerunners and in arguing, for actually even legislation, that people should be able to end their own lives if they're in the right state of mind to do so.

So I think that it's interesting to see the way these different kind of factors are coming together on the page. But also, that the gist seems to be that this man is being deprived of his right as a person and as a citizen in Australia. So, I think that's one feature that we might want to pay attention to for a second.

Nathan R.: Yeah and I think it'd be interesting to know how that influences the amount of money that's been donated to it. I mean, the GoFundMe page is for, help David to Switzerland, not help David die. So it's cushioned a little bit, but when it's pitched as a rights thing, then we're saying, "Oh, we're contributing to a man who's being repressed by his government and is having something withheld from him. So definitely, the wording is an important part of that.

I think one for me, Cameron...Of course this is not the first version of this by any stretch of imagination. You have all kinds, a whole range of categories of euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, mercy killings. All of these have been in the news for a long time. Maybe one of the striking things about this is, here's a man who is still active, who is still mentally sound and from all that I can gather, is still very physically healthy. I mean, he's 104 years old, so he's not as spry as he once was, but it's not like he's in agonizing pain, clinging on for his... gasping for breath. So I think, that is a bit of a different feature in this and maybe it isn't, but typically when we think of these issues, the issue of pain comes into these conversations. But in this one it doesn't.

Cameron M.: Yeah, I'd agree. I think often, it is a sort of a quality of life issue and I think it is a little bit different here because if you've got somebody who is barely hanging on to life and really the sort of medical technology is doing the lion's share of the bodies work, there are cases that can be made there that you...If you simply remove some of that technology and allow sort of the natural course of events to happen, that that's a little bit different.

But as you mentioned here, at 104 years old, this man is remarkably healthy, active, very lucid, and that tends to...that makes it more complicated and I think a little, I mean, a lot more difficult. You can see him in interviews even now, talking about this. You can tell, as old as he is, he's made a very clear and rational decision and he truly feels that this is his right.

So I think that since this, as you mentioned Nathan, I think this tends to push to the side or screen out some of the other factors here that can sometimes take this kind of...the euthanasia conversation in a different direction. Most of those quality of life sort of factors are to the side, so here we're dealing much more with the real sort of naked question and it's an assumption that seems to be quite prevalent, I think in the wider culture. It seems to go really hand in hand with the sort of individualistic utilitarian understanding of happiness, where for the most part, you should be able to experience life on your own terms. So long as you're operating within the law, you're not hurting, you're not actively harming somebody else necessarily. But you should be able to, if you come to this kind of a juncture where you feel that your life needs to be ended, you can do so.

But of course, that raises other questions. How soon can you do that? How old is old enough? I mean, what if we were encountering people who are younger, who are...Let's say, what if there's somebody who's 35 years old who simply feels that their life is not what they would like it to be or they simply feel that this is just a decision they'd like to make? They've come to it rationally. This may sound a little slippery slope, but...

Nathan R.: Yeah. Well I mean, but isn't suicide the leading or second leading cause of death for 10 to 17 year olds in the US right now?

Cameron M.: Yes, that's the current statistic.

Nathan R.: So you do have people making this decision. It's not a question of will people make this decision? People are making this decision. So there's that element of it. Hey, if I can put you on the spot quickly, you did a series on your other podcast, Vital Signs on, Is Opting Out An Option? Do you want to give us kind of a quick summary of where you went with that series and why, in the middle of this? Because that might provide some good, more detailed and nuanced thinking on this for who are interested in the topic.

Cameron M.: Definitely. Well, so the opt out language I find pretty fascinating, obviously that's softening the terminology a little bit. Suicide sounds much more harsh. But opting out, I think broadly speaking, we live in a moment where happiness is construed as feeling good and it's also construed as the absence of pain. So those are the sort of...The negative expression of it would be, happiness is no pain and the positive expression would be, feeling good. Both of those are incredibly fragile and both of those are also, I would argue, fairly unrealistic expectations. Because obviously, we live in a world where we are going to experience quite a lot of pain, both physical and emotional and spiritual. Our body's breakdown, we'll experience pain there and we're going to lose people we love, we're going to experience pain there. Relationships fall apart. We experienced pain there and loneliness.

Now, it's true that because of medical breakthroughs, we've greatly enhanced the quality of life. We've doubled the lifespan and in recent years, we've done so much and you can really eliminate quite a lot of pain, but it's not indefinite. Also, we live in a culture filled with numerous distractions. I mean, our entertainment world alone can really help you to sleep walk through most of a lot of painful situations in your life.

But you can't do that indefinitely. So many people walk around assuming that happiness is tantamount to feeling good all the time. That that's a relatively superficial kind of way of thinking as well, because again, there are certain days where there's all sorts of factors that tamper with our moods, the environmental and spiritual and physical and so on.

It tends to build this expectation and so, a lot of people, when they reach a crisis point of some kind, when things go really badly, when the relationship falls apart, where loneliness is just...they just seem inconsolable, then it seems like often, the logic of this position is, the best thing to do here is to find a way to eliminate the pain. Sometimes when they feel that all their options have been exhausted, then opting out may be an option. This may be something that will give you some relief and take away this sense of pain.

I think particularly with younger people, this makes a lot of really sad sense because you've also got people who are still developing and they may be not...they haven't achieved full emotional maturity and emotions can run very high, of course. So I do think that this is part of the mindset. Again, I'm painting with broad strokes here, but I think that this has some bearing on this conversation.

Nathan R.: Yeah. Well and I was just thinking, a couple of phrases that you used there that really stood out to me. You're talking about sleep walking through the problems of life, and that's a very poignant kind of a metaphor for how we often deal with pain. The other one is that idea of, this does make sad sense. It seems like when we look at the age difference here, that you spoke to kind of a younger generation and the individual pain and suffering. But actually on the other end, when you look at case studies of euthanasia or a good death or a physician assisted suicide, many of those are pitched as a very altruistic, "I don't want to be a burden to my family any longer. My work here is done. You can harvest my organs. I can donate my body to science." So it's a very outward or seemingly a very outward looking posture of...There's a bit of a heroism to this where I'm just embracing reality as it is and because I have the mental fortitude to do that, I can do it.

So we want to point out that there can be both seemingly selfish and seemingly altruistic motivations for this that both make sad sense, I guess to borrow your phrase there. But just to flip it around, so if you were David Goodall, why wouldn't you do this?

Cameron M.: Well, I think David Goodall's assumption is also, that his life is his own.

Nathan R.: Correct.

Cameron M.: Now here's where, as Nathan and I as Christians, we're going to have a very different take here. In many ways, I've said this...I think I've said this a lot in talks recently, but I think one of the more offensive assumptions that Christians hold is really that very assumption that your life is not your own. That life is actually a gift from God. Actually, I'd love to hear...I'd like to put you on the spot here, Nathan. I'd like you to maybe talk a little bit about this really offensive assumption. You think about the Apostle Paul's words that when he says, "You are not your own." How does that inform this discussion about David Goodall?

Nathan R.: Yeah, no, it's totally...And as I think there's a theme running through all of the things that we've kind of been mulling over here. This idea of that this is a sign of independence and our last kind of stance of saying, "We are in charge." We love those master of our own destiny Invictus style type poems, don't we?

Cameron M.: Yeah.

Nathan R.: And in the Gospel, which is really, actually scripture in general, just really flips that on its head. We have the desire for independence. I remember one time, when I was maybe in high school, I was eating my breakfasts and ranting about my independence or something and my grandpa very graciously said, "Actually, you don't do anything about the man who grew the vegetables that fed the man that mined the silver that built the spoon that you're eating your breakfast with." Then went on to list about 200 other employees from the person driving the combine, to harvesting the wheat from us or just, when you spool it off to think, we'd like to think of ourselves as independent, but we are made for each other and we're far more dependent on other humans than we would like to think.

Even in this case, he's depending on the financial contributions of other people to go to a place in a different country, to have other people assist him in his move of independence, so there's that. But there's the bigger issue of our dependency on God and I've been toying kind of with the verbiage of this, of saying that we live in a time in which dependency is seen to be an infringement on our dignity.

Cameron M.: Oh, wow.

Nathan R.: But really our dependency is the foundation of our identity from a Christian perspective. So who we are, if you think about the language of image of God being foundational and fundamental to what it means to be human, the of Godness means that our identity is always in relation to something beyond ourselves. Actually, a week ago on this...And it's a far more freeing way to live, is to see that our dependency is the foundation of our identity, rather than an infringement on our dignity. There's a lot to impact there. But that is the fundamental shift here in the difference of perspective of saying, "I need other people and I need God." Is that a sign of weakness or a sign of strength? So from one way of looking at the world, it's a sign of weakness. "My time here is done. I have no more utility or economic value. I have no more units of help and so, time's up."

Or do we say, actually, maybe somebody who is a 104 years old knows a whole lot more about the world and the rest of us do. And I think that's why you get this imagery of respecting the elderly, certainly in the Bible, of standing in their presence and listening because there's a wealth of information and value that they have to give to us that isn't based off of their ability to push the button in the factory. But there's this stored wisdom and knowledge that they've gleaned from years on Earth that's really, really valuable to us. It's the type of knowledge that can't be digitally categorized in Google.

So to value that as humanity, but then to see ourselves also as a derivative of somebody made in the image of God, saying that our life is not our own. That is offensive. So that goes back to your original question of you're not your own. You were bought with a price of saying that I have a dependency and identity that is derivative. That's maybe the most offensive part of the Gospel message, I think, to modern sensibilities, in a modern mindset.

Cameron M.: Yeah, I think so. But also, it's so interesting that when you talk about, not only our dependency on God, but our dependency on other people. He repeatedly, David Goodall repeatedly says, "It's just time for me to go." Well, he doesn't actually know that. None of us know when... We don't know when it's our time to go and actually, it's not our call. I think about a lot of the pernicious habits of thought that tend to just creep in our culture, where we put...We tend to put so much value on a person, in terms of their ability to press that factory switch, as you've said, to be productive, to give something back. But it's a real challenge to us to recognize that the value and dignity and worth of a human life is rooted in that relation to God, not in our productivity, not in what we can do.

I remember there's an example that C.S. Lewis gives about how strong of a character, it takes strong character sometimes to be cared for when you are in a position of...when you are truly deprived of a lot of your physical powers to receive help and aid and to do that without growing embittered, without growing resentful, is really powerful. Because when we actually think accurately as Christians, that truly is our position in relation to God. We're in total dependency upon him for the very breath in our lungs. We'd like to think of ourselves as independent and functioning well and having a lot of strength, but this case brings that up as well. What about when your physical powers are depleted? I mean, this man has been much more productive and effective than most people. I mean at 103 years old he was still advising PhD students, that sort of thing. That's amazing.

But what about when your physical powers do go? You very quickly learn, again, as Christians, we talk a lot about idols, anything that we put in the place of God that we tend to value and that we intend to invest with our ultimate concern. For many of us, it does rely on our powers or our abilities and our talents, but when those go, if they're depleted or if we're deprived of them through an injury, we need to think carefully through this. Because if we're thinking along those lines that were defined somehow by what we do, by our ability to give back, then again, we're operating with a misguided view of human value and human worth and human dignity. I think that's a huge part of this conversation as well.

Also, there's another fascinating feature here and I actually, I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about this, Nathan, just given your own family background as well. You draw a lot of stories, anecdotes and very powerful stories and great statements from elderly relatives. I moved to the United States in 1999 from Vienna, Austria and in Austria at the time, at least when I was living there, elderly people were still held in quite high regard. There was a lot of respect there. When you would greet somebody on the street, you could say, "Hey," or "What's up?" The germinal equivalent to people who are younger. But if you saw an elderly person, you would say, "Grüss Gott," which is a formal mode of address. Because it was sort of deeply ingrained in the culture that, as to what you were saying earlier Nathan, with age came wisdom and experience and these people have probably lived through historic events and they've gained some insight, that it's just not available to you yet.

But when I moved to The States, that is not the case here. Part of what I've seen in just friends and the way that friends talked about their grandparents to the way elderly people are portrayed in television shows and entertainment, very derisive and very, not just mocking, but cruel. Sort of, the background assumption seem to be these people are past their sell by date, they have nothing valid to contribute and all of their views are outdated and antiquated and they're so culturally insensitive. So, they're sort of relegated to these backspaces. I'd love to hear you talk about that a little bit.

Nathan R.: Yeah, I'd love to do a whole separate podcast on that sometime. I think something that has to do with the way in which knowledge is stored in a community. If you look at a lot of other, even different parts of the world where you have maybe tribal communities, where your knowledge is stored relationally and in humans, rather than in technology. Your elders are highly, highly, highly regarded. They know at time, crops are blooming, migration patterns, relationship things, flood conditions. Just like all that stuff that we would say, "Oh, we'll just Google that now and get it." I think you're right that, and people have heard me speak on this, have heard me say, "We live in a generation that's substituting Google for Grandpa." But the fascinating thing is, is that whatever our source of knowledge is, dictates the types of questions that we can ask.

So, we're cutting ourselves short of a lot of applied wisdom. Google's great for, "What's the capital of Bulgaria?" Not great for, "Should I marry this girl?" So there's that difference between knowledge and wisdom. I think somebody once said, "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad." You need these keepers of the non-digital realities in which we live to give us these signposting guidance and stories and applications and morals because it's an important part of the way that God made us for each other and has given us tasks to do at every phase and stage of our lives.

Just to throw in here on the end, our theological foundation from this comes from the beginning. When you look at God putting humans in a stewarding role over creation, there's a long list of things that he says you'd have influence in stewardship over. But the one striking thing that's left out of that list is other humans. So we're to care for the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and the Earth to have an active role in managing that.

But the thing that we aren't to have dominion over are other humans. So there's a simultaneous recognition that there are limits to our authority as it comes to life issues. But then also, this deep...There's a way in which to care for and to support and to be responsible for each other, even though we aren't the final creators. So if we see ourselves as creatures, as those that have been created by a creator, then we will answer this question of how we come to the end of life very differently, than if we see ourselves not as creatures and in charge on our own. So that's the fundamental shift there, is are we a creature or are we not? Then the rest spools out from there.

Cameron M.: Well, very good. I think a lot to stretch our thinking there because so much of that runs counter to, not just...We use the word assumptions a lot, but really, this is a way of life that is just in the air and many of us take for granted. I think it's our hope that when we bring up some of these topics, sobering as they are, that we take a step back. As Christians, I think we can respond to a story like this and there's a quick response and we would say, "Well, this is wrong. This person's life is sacred and they shouldn't and nobody should be...We certainly shouldn't sponsor somebody in taking their life." And there's all sorts of...But I think that there are some background assumptions and I think we've tried to name a few of them on the podcast here that we've bought into without thinking about it.

The notion that human value really is somewhat tied to our productivity. In Christian circles, we talk about the effectiveness of our calling or we talk about our vocation. We have various ways of measuring our success as Christians as well and without realizing it, and with the best of intentions sometimes, we can also make this mistake. I've also seen this treatment of the elderly and among Christians as well. We tend to be very concerned with, well, being really on top of the cultural moment and tracking what's going on now. In our zeal, to attend to those issues, we often will again send the message that people who have been around for longer, who are older, are maybe outdated and that their perspective isn't needed and that they're not useful either. These are assumptions that play in here as well.

I think we have good reason to stop and examine our hearts as well. I think it's also important that when we look at this...I mean, if you scroll through this GoFundMe page, you'll see plenty of people being quite belligerent and unkind. This is what happens in comment sections. But I think we need to remind ourselves that people who are outside the church, who are not Christians, are of course, not necessarily going to behave like Christians. If there is no God or there's no higher power, many of our individualistic assumptions would tend to lead us that the idea that we are the master of our fate. Well, when we hear a phrase like that, we sort of have romantic notions of maybe seizing life and really, realizing our dreams and our goals. But the other side of the coin is ending life on our own terms as well. That really does come hand in hand with that assumption and I don't think that's a stretch at all to say that.

Nathan R.: Yeah. So I think what you're saying here is that, what he's doing is the logical and rational conclusion to the way in which he views his life in the world?

Cameron M.: I think so.

Nathan R.: So it does, to use your word again, make sad sense. But it isn't illogical and inconsistent at all?

Cameron M.: Right and I think when you look at some of these kinds of cases, you're going to see a lot of sad sense. So I think as Christians though, this is again where we have a wonderful opportunity. Part of what we want to do is share hope with people who...and that includes people who really are convinced that life is finished, that they're done, that they have nothing more to offer.

You know what? Many of these people, in human terms, in terms of human strength, many of them are right. They don't have anything more to offer. But as Christians, we can say, "That's okay. Your value doesn't reside in what you have to offer, necessarily." Also, you don't always know what you have to offer, even in your moments of greatest weakness and greatest dependency. It's incredible that you hear many stories about people who have suffered and who have suffered well. That's a very paradoxical phrase for people nowadays, that that can be a tremendous witness to the hope of Christ.

I mean, Nathan and I, we can talk about our friend, who probably experienced some of his most powerful ministry as he was dying in a hospital bed and making these videos in his most vulnerable and weak moments. The moments where all of his strength was ebbing. Well, if that is the message of Christianity, there's hope for everybody. Even for the David Goodall's, who have lived what they think is a totally full life and to their mind is complete. Well, if your life is not your own, you don't know that. We have good, rational reason to leave it in God's hands.

Nathan R.: When I was in my twenties and in college, I joined a Sunday school class of 80 year olds.

Cameron M.: Oh, wow.

Nathan R.: It was one of the best things that I did for four years, as far as my personal formation and wisdom and that was passed on to me in good life and examples. So the church really does provide the place for this multi-generational interface to happen. I think what I want to say, as bring this to a close, is that I think we can have an initial knee jerk reaction to this and they're all, "This is ridiculous. This is crazy. What's wrong with these people?" Be careful there because one of my convictions is, is that the church needs to be very careful about protesting against things that we aren't modeling a better alternative to.

So the takeaway from me on this, by the time the people listening to this hear this, Dr Goodall will be dead. He will have passed on if his plan goes as he designed it. So the takeaway then, is who's next and who am I in relationship with and how can I share the value of humanity independently of their economic functionality or of their age? And to push that back into the personal sphere of thinking about, if I want to be serious about what it means to respect the elderly in the weak and the vulnerable, what does that look like in my own life? Let the Lord convict us there and let us start there. So if we do have some outrage about this sort of thing, let that be a conviction and not merely just a fad.

So anyway, heavy topic today. Thanks for thinking through it with me, Cameron. Always a pleasure to hear your thoughts and for those of you listening in, you've been listening to Thinking Out Loud. A podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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