Assisted Dying – 22nd July 2015
It is a cliché that one of the few things that are certain in life is that at some stage we are all going to die. Whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a believer in the life hereafter or in the resurrection you are going to end up, as Monty Python might have said, as an ex-person, passed-over, gone away, deceased. If that sounds frivolous, forgive me my attempt at levity for what follows is deadly serious.
My guess is that most of us wish for what might be termed “a good death”. For some that means that “he died doing what he enjoyed (or, of course, she) doing most”, be that scuba diving or sailing or mountaineering or trekking towards the South Pole. For the rest, it probably means enjoying a long, full and healthy life and then quietly going to bed at night and not waking up in the morning. Life and death are, for many, seldom that pleasant or that easy.
Medical science is capable of prolonging life if not for ever at least long past its natural sell-by date. That means that a lot of people end up falling to bits with most of the parts worn out but with heart still beating in some form of suspended animation between the now and the hereafter and very possibly in a state of decrepitude that is undignified, painful and unwanted.
I mention all of this because when Parliament sits again in September for its brief and unnecessary spill-over period we shall debate the Assisted Dying Bill that was introduced during the last Parliament by the Labour Peer Lord Falconer and is being resuscitated in the Commons as a Private Members Bill by the Labour MP Rob Marris. Between now and then MPs of all political persuasions and of all faiths or none will be bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of pro-forma e-mails sent in support of campaigning groups on both sides of the euthanasia argument and also by some more thoughtful, hugely harrowing and deeply personal accounts of experience in support, for or against, of the “Right to Die”.
“You would not let a dog suffer like this, would you?” is the common cry. No, personally, I would not. One of my last great Labradors, Colonel Blashford, had a leukaemia that was, unfortunately, treatable. Instead of recognising that the end was nigh and doing, swiftly and decently, the right thing I subjected him to chemotherapy. The result was the same: he suffered hugely and still had to be put to sleep. I have sworn that I will never make that mistake again and will in future be pre-emptive in the animal`s interest rather than tardy in my own. But any animal, however intelligent and “human”, cannot make that decision for itself. A human being, under most circumstances either can or has other human beings to do it for them. Therein lies a very fundamental difference.
I had always, until my Father`s time came, taken the “don`t let them suffer” view. The Old Man was diagnosed as having a pernicious leukaemia in an August and was given a few months to live with the possibility, given aggressive treatment, of a couple more years but involving a lot of grief. At that time the science was not as developed as it is today and he and my Mother decided to eschew the treatment. He had five very good months, one fairly rough one and a painful end alleviated by an excellent hospital, a hugely dedicated medical team and, because he was otherwise immensely fit and strong, enough lawfully administered morphine to kill an elephant. His palliative care was superb but in the middle of the second of three nights while I was “on watch” and holding his hand he awakened from what I had assumed was a terminal and drug-induced coma and asked if my Mother was available. Scarcely believing his lucidity I rushed from the side-room to the cot upon which my Mother was sleeping before going back on vigil and woke her up. They had three minutes of conversation before he went back to sleep never again to awaken on this side of the Great Divide. What they discussed I neither know nor wish to know. That is none of my business. But what I do know with certainty is that it mattered immensely to both of them and that had I taken, with the deepest of love, my own “put the old boy to sleep” route the conversation would not have taken place.
We play God at our peril. Setting aside the obvious dangers of families, wishing to get their hands on the inheritance, encouraging elderly people to end their days prematurely or younger people who are very ill seeking to end their lives because “I don`t want to be a nuisance” there are, I now believe, deeper reasons for believing that living beings have worth and that nature, not intervention, must be allowed to take its course. I know of two very proud and ancient ladies, my Mother and one other, a friend of long-standing, both of whom say “I want to die: I am no use to anyone”. They are not seeking termination. They are seeking reassurance that they are, as indeed they most certainly both are, of value. We, and our children and our grand-children dote on them. They bring huge value to our family and will do so until the Good Lord claims them for his own. “Assisted dying” does not feature on the radar.
Terminal palliative care can and should be invested in and improved upon certainly. Whether at home or in the Hospices those nearing the end of their days, and their families, need enormous support and affection if we are to allow them to enjoy – and I use the word very deliberately – the “good death” that we all wish for ourselves. That, though, is a far cry from the “assisted dying” route that is promoted within the Marris Bill. I have the greatest possible sympathy and respect for those who are suffering from terminal illnesses and for their friends and families but, for reasons of both experience and faith that I hope I have explained, I shall not be voting in the “Aye” lobby in September