Health

The right to life – and death

Andrew Verrijdt

However much we abhor the idea, the choice is personal and should be respected

Helen Keller epitomised triumph over adversity, which we celebrate - and which makes it hard to accept that the Belgian twins, Marc and Eddy Verbessem, chose rather to die.

I often wonder about Helen Keller. Not the fact that she was a militant socialist and an indefatigable enemy of all things capitalism; that part I understand. What keeps me up at night is the thought of how much commitment, how much intelligence and how much personal strength it must have taken her to learn to read and communicate. 

Before she was even two years old an unnamed illness robbed her of both her sight and her hearing – and this at a time when none of the current technological tools that we use to aid the visually and hearing impaired were available. She went on to become a globally respected writer, activist and public speaker.

I hope that people who are deafblind won't think it condescending if I admit that I find Keller's achievements endlessly impressive. I fear that if I had been in her situation I would not have fared nearly as well. I'm sure that many others feel the same. Indeed, late last year a pair of twins in the Antwerp region of Belgium, who had been deaf since birth, fought a legal battle to be granted the right to be euthanised, because they were going blind.

Their application was successful and, in mid-December, they were put to death by a lethal injection. To say that their choice was controversial does not begin to do it justice. Some activists within the deafblind community found the case particularly distressing because they feel that it reinforces the idea that a deafblind life is not worth living. 

In fact, in Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, the act can only be performed if it can be shown that a person is experiencing "unbearable pain". Did the men really meet this criterion? Their bodies were not racked by discomfort as can be the case with fibromyalgia or arthritis. They did not have any terminal conditions such as cancer or Parkinson's. And, as Keller's life demonstrates, many deafblind people can live full, successful lives.

The case was also distressing for some of my psychologist colleagues. We spend a lot of our time reminding people about the good things in life and helping them not to give up hope. We work hard at stopping our clients from killing themselves. But the realities of psychological suffering are such that sometimes we fail. Unfortunately, that is precisely the point that I have been building up to.

There are many different kinds of pain. Can we really say that the pain of breaking an ankle is worse than the pain of a broken heart? Can anyone who has not experienced it say that the pain of losing one's leg in a car accident is worse than the pain of going through life without that same leg? The sad but inescapable truth is that, although emotional and physical pain are qualitatively different from one another, any speculation about which one is "worse" is pointless. Emotional pain can be just as bad as the physical and, unlike with physical pain, the methods we have to treat it are slow-acting, imprecise and unreliable. They are further handicapped by the fact that you can never truly know another person's pain.

In the case of the Belgian twins, they had been deaf since birth and had learned to communicate entirely through visual means. They had spent their whole lives living and working together. They were each other's emotional support and that support was built upon them being able to see one another. They believed that the loss of their sight would mean the loss of each other and would leave them completely alone. I cannot know how I would feel in a similar situation.But I do know that for these two gentlemen the thought of being so separated from one another after a lifetime of togetherness came spiked with unbearable pain. And no one can say that it was not.

Some may ask that we consider the wider issues. After all, does the availability of a painless exit not make more people likely to want to "check out"? Does not everyone have a right to life? Perhaps, but that is not the point. The right to life does not mean the right to be alive. It means the right to be in charge of one's own life. That is something more precious than even life itself. It has sometimes been noted that we could cut the rate of suicide down to almost zero. All we would have to do is permanently confine anyone who seemed to want to kill themselves. Would this work? Oh, undoubtedly. Would it be worth the cost? No.

Reading about the Belgian twins made me, and others, very sad. But that doesn't matter. The pain I felt is nothing compared with the pain the men felt as they faced what seemed to be a future without each other. No one had any right to tell them what they could or could not do with their own lives, even if all they wanted to do was to cut their lives short.

Andrew Verrijdt is an educational psychologist and is working on his PhD at the University of Cape Town

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