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‘Vulnerable women’

By Julia Anaf, Vice President, South Australia Voluntary Euthanasia Society

I have often heard the term ‘vulnerable women’ used as a gender-specific critique of law reform to allow choice for voluntary euthanasia. It has occurred in reports that ‘mercy killings’ are more often of women by men. It has also appeared in relation to those now well-known women who have gone public with the decisions to end their lives in an effort to promote legal reforms for voluntary euthanasia. Shirley Nolan, Nancy Crick and Jo Shearer immediately come to mind.

In an article in The Age on 28th March 2002 Michael Cook, commenting on Nancy Crick’s well publicized decision to end her life, said ‘Nancy Crick is paying the ­ultimate price for being elderly, neglected and female. Her misery and inadequate nursing care fit into a neat pattern of victimization for women – a victimization in which they all too often comply’. He also said that her ‘plea to die is probably a plea for more affection’.

Such a depiction bears no resemblance to the life and circumstances of the feisty Nancy Crick, with her close familial relationships and friendship networks. Rather than being denied adequate nursing care she gratefully accepted the offer of the best palliative care available as a last resort before making the decision to end her life. She was not a victim, but a strong woman who exercised the right to relinquish a life that was intolerable to her. Yet it was deemed necessary for opponents of law reform to impose the status of victimhood on her.

Shirley Nolan died after a second attempt to end what she called ‘a living hell’, stating that she was placing what was left of her life on the ‘altar of ­compassion’ so that, in the future, others will be spared a similar fate. One media response to her clearly articulated decision was to say that ‘the timing of Shirley Nolan’s suicide may well have been more a matter of public relations than in response to her immediate pain and suffering’. This detached and dismissive statement suggests a woman easily manipulated by others, rather than the strong-willed woman known throughout the world for founding the Anthony Nolan Trust. Further it suggests that the commentator knew better what was in her mind, effectively annihilating her personal identity through his statement.

I would argue that the lives of women (and men) are not devalued by chosen ‘mercy killing’, but by the need to still resort to such actions by the ongoing outlawing of legalized voluntary euthanasia. In a similar vein it has been argued that ‘acquiescent suicide’ by elderly women through their refusal of food and medical treatment is ‘generally a response to a sometimes not-so-subtle message from women’s families that they have outstayed their welcome’. Firstly this is an ugly denigration of all those families who struggle and advocate for the best end-of-life care for their loved ones, both male and female. Secondly is it ever argued that men are ‘acquiescent’ and badly treated by their families if, and when, they too adopt the only legal way of taking charge and hastening death in the face of unremitting suffering? I cannot imagine any argument about ‘vulnerable men’ gaining currency if it happened to be that men were more often those assisted to die, and by women.