It will be no secret to anyone who reads my blog regularly or knows me that I am in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia in controlled conditions. My reasons for this are both personal and ethical.
Ethically, I feel that forcing people to suffer the pain, loss of dignity and low quality of life that comes with terminal illness or long-term progressive disease without giving them the option to choose to end their life is immoral. We do not allow animals to suffer in this way, neither do we hear people campaigning about “sanctity of life” outside veterinary surgeries, where animal euthanasia is a common occurrence.
Personally, I have watched a friend die slowly of cancer, gradually having all her privacy, dignity and quality of life stripped away as her pain and debilitation increased. I should point out that she lived in France at the time, where there is no hospice movement. Having heard stories of deaths in hospices in the UK, I have no doubt that her care and her death would have been “better” over here. However, that is not my point. Even with exemplary end-of-life care, she would still have lived for a great deal longer than she wanted to. More than three weeks before her death, during a particularly gruelling stay in hospital, she whispered to me that she just wanted to go, and it was very plain what she meant. She even asked me if I thought she was wrong to feel that way. I feel strongly that no one in her position should ever be made to feel guilty for wanting to be free of all that pain and indignity.
Last night, I watched a BBC News at Six report on the new recommendations which came out from the Commission for Assisted Dying yesterday. Their recommendation is that assisted suicide should be legal under tightly controlled conditions, where the patient is cognizant and can both make the decision and administer the fatal dose themselves. As a first step, I feel this is an excellent recommendation, and it would have helped my friend to end her life when she chose, before things got too unbearable for her. Of course, it wouldn’t help those who suffer from incapacitating conditions such as locked-in syndrome, and many campaigners feel that the recommendations do not go far enough, as this moving statement from Tony Nicklinson, who has locked-in syndrome, shows. However, I believe it is a step in the right direction.
As part of the BBC News report, a woman (whose name and condition I have sadly forgotten, so my apologies for writing about her anonymously) was interviewed who has a similar debilitating condition to Mr Nicklinson. However, she is not an advocate of assisted dying. Like many other campaigners on her side of the debate, she feels that any changes to the law would start us on a slippery slope. Before we know it, terminally ill and severely disabled people would begin to feel an obligation to end their lives. Life-ending drugs would be offered where high strength pain control drugs are offered now. She rightly stated that disability and illness should not be treated as simply “bad”. She claims that her illness has been something of a gift to her, she has a full life and she would change nothing if she had the chance to go back and start her life again.
I think she is missing the point. If the government decides to introduce a bill based on the recommendations from the Commission for Assisted Dying, there would be no threat to her or indeed to anyone who didn’t choose to end their life, hence the reason for the term “assisted suicide” being very carefully used. There would be endless safeguards, including needing the medical opinion of two doctors, and patients would have to fit into very strict criteria. There is no reason to believe that anyone could be forced to do this against their will. More importantly, there is no evidence that this happens in countries where assisted suicide has been legal for some time.
I have another friend who is Dutch. Voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. When her husband developed terminal cancer, they discussed all the options with their doctor. He underwent all the treatment possible to maintain his quality of life, but there came a time when the only future possible for him was a slow and painful decline. At this point, he went through the rigorous process of choosing to end his life. His last day was a beautiful summer’s day, and he, his wife and his doctor went out into the garden and sat on a sun-drenched bench. He and his wife said their goodbyes. Then, when he was ready, the doctor administered the fatal dose. He died peacefully, with his face turned up to the sun.
I know which of those two deaths I would rather experience, no matter how comfortable and peaceful I may have been made in a hospice or similar facility. Friends I have who have watched family members die in a hospice, although they applauded the process for being peaceful and gentle, they all wished that their loved one had been conscious enough to say goodbye, rather than in a drug-induced coma.
I hope that the UK will soon become as enlightened as the Netherlands and other countries like it, and adopt a strongly safeguarded law to allow people to die with dignity.