I had the pleasure last month of attending a talk with Humanist Celebrant Jo Hawes on assisted dying. I have always been a believer in assisted dying but am aware of the complications that surround the subject and I understand that there is never a clear black and white answer, there will always be grey areas.
My blog today will attempt to share some of the information provided by Jo's talk as well as giving you my view on assisted dying and the issues that accompany it.
I would like to use several examples, the first is my Mum's friend Jean who died of Cancer last year (Jo was the celebrant at Jean's funeral). Jean's last few days were described as horrendous and no-one could possibly have wanted to have inflicted such pain on anyone but all the staff could do was administer painkillers to help ease the pain. Could this have been an example of a situation where it was in the patients best interests to be helped to dye rather than suffering an additional last few days of hell?
One argument I tend to use is that we are kinder to animals than humans, I could never watch an animal of mine suffer if I knew there was no way it could get better and I would have no hesitation in making a vets appointment to prevent any prolonged suffering, in one case I had to break the neck of one of my cockatiels as it lay dying, shaking and screeching in pain, although it was not an easy thing to do I felt I had no option. I could counter this arguement with another ill bird who I was about to 'put to sleep' as he had been attacked by chickens but on this occasion I chose not to and the bird went on to live for another 2 years, enjoying his life thoroughly.Was I right in the first instance or should I have let nature take its course?
Jo talked about the Liverpool care pathway and how it is currently used to determine the treatment of dying patients, we talked about how it could be used to help decide when medical professionals could assist a patient to die more quickly if their diagnosis was already terminal and it was believed that the patients last few days or hours would be unbearable. Surely we can get a sensible approach to assess how much quality of life a person has, when someone gets to the point that they can't breathe for themselves, swallow, feed, drink, when they are incontinent and can't voluntarily move their own bodies, when someone reaches this point and they have no hope of getting better then I believe we should be able to assist them with their death.
Some of you may have seen the recent Terry Pratchett documentary on his visit to Dignitas or you may simply have read the media backlash after the documentary was aired:
For me it was sad that a man (Peter Smedley - pictured below) had to travel abroad to kill himself before he was ready to die rather than stay in this country and wait for his condition to worsen. Even more fascinating are the figures that many of those using the Dignitas service have nothing wrong with them, they are simply tired of living. An 84 year old, Nan Maitland used Dignitas to take her own life after saying she wanted avoid the prolonged dwindling of old age, she was not terminally ill but knew that her body was starting to fail and arthritis was worsening.
Picture above of Peter Smedley as he takes his own life in front of his wife in the Dignitas clinic.
Another controversial dignitas patient was ex England youth rugby player Daniel James who chose to die at Dignitas after becoming paralysed and saying he wasn't prepared for a second class life. Whilst many victims of paralysis go on to have great lives for Daniel 'felt his body had become a prison' and his 'fear and loathing of life was increasing with each day'
So let's get a few facts straight, suicide is not illegal in the UK (it was pre-1960's), anyone can take their own life, although culturally in Britain suicide tends to be frowned upon, in other cultures this can be the opposite e.g. Kamikaze pilots in WW2. There are also moves within the UK legal system to prevent anyone getting prosecuted if they do help someone to die in circumstances where the patient is terminally ill, Daniel James parents were not prosecuted for taking him to Dignitas.
Do we have a right to die, if you are a Christian you may think not as you are likely to believe that God will decide when it is your time to go and that no-one has the right to take a life. The Christian ethos is also very anti-suicide. As a humanist I do believe that we should have a right to death.
Here is another argument that was presented by Jo during her talk, she used the example of a young child in hospital, their prognosis was not good, they were described as being in constant pain, they had no bladder yet parents and medics fought to keep the child alive eventually creating an artificial bladder that would be of benefit to medical science and would later be of benefit to many individuals; Did this medical breakthrough warrant the child's suffering and poor quality of life?
Perhaps some people fear that by supporting assisted suicide we are making way for greedy families to take the lives of their elderly relatives for financial gain? I think these cases would be and are a minority and we already have existing laws to deal with such offenders.
I do not aim to bring any conclusions to this argument as the answers will vary for different people of different cultures and religion but I do want to the right to die with as much dignity as possible. I would hate to think that time and money would be wasted on keeping me alive if I had no prospect of getting better and if my life was miserable for both me and those around me.