April 24, 2018
Is extreme old age a terminal condition?
Martin Hansen, The Gisborne Herald
David Seymour’s End of Life Choice bill, now before Parliament, is similar to legislation and proposed legislation in other countries in that it is restricted to those who wish to die because they are terminally ill or are enduring unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved by palliative care.
In this context it’s relevant to consider the case of Dr David Goodall, who on April 4, 2018, had his 104th birthday in Perth, Australia.
Most people “celebrate” such birthdays, but in Dr Goodall’s case “endured” might be more appropriate because, as he put it to ABC news: “I greatly regret having reached that age.”
Asked if he’d had a happy birthday, he responded bluntly: “No. I’m not happy. I want to die.” That was the only birthday present he wanted, Dr Goodall said.
Dr Goodall began his distinguished scientific career at Imperial College, London, moving later to the University of Melbourne as senior lecturer. Since then he held positions at what is now the University of Ghana, the University of
Reading in the UK, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, the University of California, and Utah State University. For the rest of his career he worked with CSIRO until his retirement in 1979. Dr Goodall was awarded the Order of Australia at 101, having produced over 100 research papers throughout his career and earned three doctorates.
Until 2016 Dr Goodall remained academically active as honorary (unpaid) research associate at the Centre for Ecosystem Management at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Perth, and editor-in-chief of the series Ecosystems of the World. In 2016, at 102, he was believed to be the oldest scientist still working in Australia.
He lived alone, did his own shopping at weekends and travelled to the university campus four days a week, a 90-minute journey by two buses and a train. He enjoyed reading Shakespeare and presented poetry to a reading group with friends.
His daughter, Karen Goodall-Smith, said that without his work, he would be lost. “I don’t think that he would survive very long, she said. “His work is his hobby as well as his passion, and without his work, I don’t think that there would be a purpose for him any more.”
So when, at the age of 102, he was ordered by ECU to vacate his office on the grounds that he was a safety risk to himself, he felt his entire life was threatened. He challenged the decision and, after great support from the public, it was reversed.
Since then, his physical condition has continued to deteriorate. Most of his friends have died, and his poor vision prevents him doing academic work.
He was still using public transport to and from university until recently, when he had a fall in his one-bedroom apartment. He told ABC News: “I fell back-first into the corner of the flat and there was nothing that I could hold on to, so I just teetered around on the floor. I called out but no one could hear me.” He was found two days later by his cleaner and taken to hospital. After patching him up, doctors told him not to use public transport or even cross the road by himself.
With his family and friends, he marked his 104th birthday at his daughter’s home, together with ABC news. Dr Goodall took the opportunity to express his views on voluntary euthanasia. As a long-time member of Exit International, he intends to spend his remaining life campaigning for voluntary euthanasia to be legalised in Western Australia. He feels strongly that: “Once one is past the middle stage of life, one has paid back to society the debts that have been paid out. One should be free to use the rest of one’s life as one chooses. If one chooses to kill oneself then that’s fair enough. I don’t think anyone else should interfere.”
But under proposed legislation, Dr Goodall wouldn’t be eligible because he’s not suffering from a terminal illness and apart from being frail and almost blind, his health is quite good. He has just had enough of life; to him, it is no longer worth living.
Dr Goodall’s daughter has clear views about her father’s predicament.
“I am close to David and don’t want this, but I also understand that there is little dignity and self-respect being so dependent on others. The doors have been gradually closing to him . . . . He has no control over his life, over his body, over his eyesight. He has lived a really good 104 years. Whatever happens, whatever choices are made, they’re up to him.”
Dr Goodall’s case is yet another reminder of an issue that will not go away: is one’s life really one’s own, or must we continue to accept the theocratic and increasingly discredited dogma that one’s life belongs to God?
Martin Hanson is a retired science teacher who lives in Nelson.