Death rights: hearing the voices of older women in the voluntary euthanasia debate

Sceriha, Madge G. (2008) Death rights: hearing the voices of older women in the voluntary euthanasia debate. Masters (Research) thesis, James Cook University.

PDF (Thesis front)
Download (262kB)
PDF (Thesis whole)
Download (1MB)


This thesis explores the opinions of older women about end of life issues with a particular focus on whether voluntary euthanasia and physician assisted suicide should be accessible as options for the terminally ill. It describes, and critically reflects upon, the opinions and experiences of 12 older women from the University of the Third Age (U3A), an organization for older people here in Townsville in North Queensland. These women had responded to a letter from me, published in the local U3A Newsletter, in which I had invited women members interested to participate in this research to contact me to arrange an interview.

My interest to hear the voices of older women in this debate emerged heuristically as I reflected upon my personal experience as an older woman who had felt helpless and ignorant when confronted by my terminally ill partner’s suffering. Many questions had arisen for me about why there was no way he could have accessed assistance to die as his condition worsened. This interest grew as I read widely about voluntary euthanasia and was reinforced by the publicity surrounding a radicalised voluntary euthanasia lobby and the suicides of two older women supporters of the voluntary euthanasia movement. I pondered opposing viewpoints also, especially those which predicted older women would be among the most vulnerable to the ‘slippery slope’ consequences which opponents believed would follow the legalising of voluntary euthanasia. I wondered if other older women were questioning as I was and how to encourage more widespread community conversations about these controversial issues. I decided to inquire further and this thesis is the outcome of that inquiry.

I used a guided interview schedule based on broad areas of interest around end of life challenges which encouraged a conversational approach to the purpose in hand, and allowed other relevant ideas and issues to emerge which may not have arisen otherwise. I applied the principles of theory triangulation to the analytic process as an heuristic tool. This involved embracing feminist standpoint theory from a perspective not unlike post modern feminism, as well as utilising the principles of a broadly based critical tradition to engage with post modern thinking. In this way I was able to acknowledge the importance of subjectivity, but from a perspective in which the individual is perceived as being socially located in complex power relations and structural divisions (Hirschmann, 2004; Thompson, 2000; Young 1990). At the end of each of these chapters I have critically reflected on aspects of the socio-cultural and political context within which the participants opinions have been formed to highlight the significance of the personal-political nexus in that process. This critically reflective approach allowed me, as the researcher and as participant-partner, to add my voice to the analytic process as a feminist, an older woman, a woman with a disability and an activist in all these three areas of interest.

The findings have been reported as thematic clusters under the chapter headings: Older Women Speak Out: About Death and Dying, About Voluntary Euthanasia and About Quality of Life. It appeared that, while death was not feared, the dying process was a more daunting prospect, especially if it was likely to involve a protracted period of decline and deterioration. Few of the participants had any experience with palliative care and, those who did, were disappointed that it had not lived up to their expectations. Most adamantly rejected the prospect of admission to a nursing home and, though several speculated that suicide may be their only alternative, most hoped they would be able to remain living independently in their own homes, with support if necessary, till they died.

The concepts which emerged in the findings chapters as the critical reflective process unfolded, appeared to cluster with the concept of ‘ethics of care’. Some feminists,, including feminists within the disability movement, advocate working with ethics of care from within a political rather than a psychological framework and, as a consequence, to locate this important ethical issue within the social domain (McLaughlin, 2003; Sevenhuijsen, 1998). This perspective informs the final chapter in which I take the critically reflective process forward to vision a different future in which ethics of care understandings about the interdependencies between people are given full scope. I propose tentative strategies to implement this at grassroots, professional practice and policy development levels.

These strategies for change include exploring opportunities for alliances to be negotiated between groups which have interests in common around social care provision and the protection of the rights of vulnerable people. Such alliances are particularly relevant in the light of what has been identified as a health care crisis. Locating care in the social domain challenges the privileged position of medicine as the current model of practice but not in a way which denies the importance of medicine in end of life care. Both are vital to good quality of care which, ethics of care feminists identify, is central to social functioning. This is as important at the end of life as at any other time to ensure a holistic approach to end of life management centres on the well being of the person who is dying, is sensitive to that person’s right to be heard and respects her/his wishes. This is a process which has been likened to a ‘midwifing’ through the dying process and, making the hard choices which those who seek an easeful end request.

Item ID: 2127
Item Type: Thesis (Masters (Research))
Keywords: voluntary euthanasia, terminal care, suicide, assisted suicide, older women, death, moral attitudes, ethics, end of life, physician and patient
Date Deposited: 23 Mar 2009 22:28
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society @ 0%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169901 Gender Specific Studies @ 0%
Downloads: Total: 975
Last 12 Months: 16
More Statistics

Actions (Repository Staff Only)

Item Control Page Item Control Page