Assisted Dying For The Terminally Ill?

Posted at 01:18am on 27th January 2009

Revised: 15th January, 2010

Does it ever strike you as strange that medical advances, in Western civilisations, are such that we can prolong life by nearly half as much again as our allotted three-score-years-and-ten, yet the legal position of euthanasia is constantly challenged? Of course, we don’t call it euthanasia! That in itself would challenge our sensibilities, especially those of us for whom Hitler’s programme of eugenics is still uncomfortably close.

So it’s ‘assisted dying’ that we speak of, which is more in keeping with our preconceived ideas of sanitising life in the twenty-first century. And that, somehow, makes it sound more altruistic. Less sordid! More natural.

Natural was what the BBC’s dramatisation, ‘A Short Stay In Switzerland’, was determined to portray. A true story, it was well cast, and Julie Walter’s performance as Anne Turner – GP, mother, and wife of a doctor with a debilitating disease – was impeccable. There were soggy tissues all round in our household as we watched her nurse him to the end, whilst still holding down her own job, only to discover that in a million to one chance, she was afflicted with the same disease. I watched with as open a mind as I could muster.

CONSIDERING SUICIDE

You couldn’t help but be moved as Julie/Anne spelled out the consequences of living with her illness. We saw her falling – backwards down the stairs on one occasion; dribbling; choking; fighting for air. We were made to understand that loss of speech and the ability to close her mouth and eyes would follow. On the face of it, who could blame her for deciding, there and then, that assisted dying for those suffering such terrible afflictions was the only way out?

But there were her children to consider. Adults, all, they were horrified. Distraught! We saw them dealing with loss and grief before the event actually arrived. Opposed, at first to their mother’s decision, they all gradually came around. Though thinking about it, later, I can’t help feeling that they had little option but to do so. Mother was implacable in her decision. Resolute! Only once did she refer to ‘breaking my children’s hearts’. But any compassion she might have shown for them was secondary to her own plight.

GRATUITOUS USE OF VOYEURISM

There was one scene which I felt was a gratuitous use of violence, or voyeurism. We saw Walters hobble to the kitchen of her bungalow. We watched as she ground a bottleful of tablets with a pestle and mortar – which just happened to be handy. We marvelled as she had the presence of mind to mix the resulting powder with yoghurt. Did this make it more palatable, I wondered? More digestible? And we nodded, knowingly, as she took a plastic bag from the drawer.

The inference was clear. And once upon a time this would have sufficed. I know, as an author and novelist, to respect my readers’ intelligence. It seems that the BBC does not endow its viewers with that same respect. Or are they pandering to a prurient instinct in humanity which, the more it is fed, the more voracious it becomes? Either way, we were then treated to a scene which I could not watch, of a yogurt-besmirched Walters, her face clearly visible in a plastic bag, fighting for breath.

THE LEGAL POSITION OF EUTHANASIA

You may argue, all you like, that this was ultimate defence of assisted suicide. That the euthanasia laws in the UK should be changed. That people driven to such lengths should be allowed to terminate their lives with dignity. Your argument, I’m afraid, would fall on deaf ears. I’ll tell you why, in a moment.

But first I have another complaint to make. All writers – be they journalists or novelists – write to effect. That means that they set out with an aim in mind: a purpose. And that purpose is to influence their readers; to make them stop and think – just as I am with you; to persuade them to veer towards a certain perspective. The short time I spent with the Media Awareness Project (MAP) many years ago, taught me to make comparison between newspaper reports (more of this another time). But my point now is that, whatever the intended affect, well-rounded stories, true or fictional, demand a three dimensional approach. And I found that lacking in this dramatisation.

THE SANCTITY OF LIFE ARGUMENT

Yes, we were shown Dr Turner’s children’s angst. But theirs was an emotional response. Nowhere was a reasoned argument made against assisted dying. Nothing was mentioned about the modern hospice movement, and barely a word in respect of palliative care today. Instead, we had an insulting little scene – slipped in, almost as an afterthought – of the best friend, Claire, suddenly asking if she might pray for Anne Turner.

Up to that point, there was nothing to suggest that Claire had a faith of any sort. And the shouting match which ensued roundly declared her to be ‘lacking in courage’ and ‘unable to face reality’, whilst Anne’s choice was promoted as the only courageous option. In other words, any argument which might have been put forward for any alternative point of view was dismissed without ever having been voiced. More than that, it was ridiculed!

WHERE'S THE DIGNITY IN EUTHANASIA?

So where did the drama leave me? On the one hand, I find my thinking unchanged. Like anyone with an ounce of compassion, I am filled with the utmost sympathy for those to whom assisted suicide seems the only way out. On the other hand, any lingering doubts I might have had about the efficacy of such action, were utterly dispelled by the last scene of the drama.

We saw Anne Turner, surrounded by her devoted children, walking down an endless, featureless corridor and entering a room which could only be described as austere. Dignity? None! Following a few moments spent alone with her children, Anne Turner met her chosen end gagging on a foul concoction of drugs, being filmed by a complete stranger. A requirement of Swiss law, this would, no doubt, be a prerequisite of UK law, were euthanasia to be permitted here.

The whole scene left me profoundly saddened.

Because what dignity can there be in such a cold and callous act? And why is it that we, in the West, are so utterly unable to face death as an inevitable part of life? A Rite of Passage which requires that we experience the whole gamut of human emotions: pain, grief, anger?

THE LIVING DEAD

Experiments in erasing the consequences of our actions have been seen to fail: in the proliferation of broken marriages, following ‘no-fault’ divorce; in the cult of knife crime as we dilute judgement and sentencing in a tide of mitigation; and in teenage pregnancy as we sanitise abortion. If we are so intent upon obliterating the emotions that make us human we may, one day, find that we’ve become so dehumanised as to be robotic. And that, actually, means that we would not experience life at all. We’d be the living dead!

Have you experience of death in the midst of life? Do you have a view on the merits or otherwise of euthanasia. Do write in. Your views may help others to form a perspective on the matter.

Useful addresses:

Care For The Family: Bereaved Parents' Network
Cruse Bereavement Care
Samaritans

This article may be reproduced on any non-commercial website or blog on condition that it appears unaltered, in its entirety, and that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk

Your Comments:

Clive McLaren
8th August 2012
at 3:23pm
Dear Mel.

Your article challenged my apathy regarding assisted dying and euthanasia. I sometimes defend a faith based reality on an atheist blog titled 'choice in dying' The main writer was a Catholic Priest, probably is a Biologist and a man who helped his wife die in Switzerland. He and his supporters are very harsh critics of any religious position, particularly Catholic based Christianity. ( I am not Catholic)

I know I need to respond to his hatred and bitterness against God; but I don't want to just oppose his world view with mine, as it will just inspire ridicule and invective, and only entrench his position. However I wonder what one can say to a man who felt the most humane and compassionate choice was to help his wife die, thereby end her suffering and his anguish in seeing his wife go through so much pain?

My father died of cancer in Hospice, my Mother wasted away over a period of 11 months from having a stroke. A dear friend died of Liver cancer, again cared for in a hospice. I watched a little 18 month old girl die of Aids whilst working in Tanzania. Recently another friend aged 40 died from an alcohol related death.

I am assured of my place in heaven, but those who deny Jesus have a very different perspective. How do I, as a Christian, give genuine comfort and a response that is hopeful to un-believers or those who face the terrible dilemma of a loved one in terrible pain?

Kind regards

Clive

10th September 2012
at 6:40pm
I have seen some people die being a doctor and once or twice asked to help someone die. Being mortal I have to face my own death, which gets nearer every day. I have had a few close shaves, once when I was stabbed in the throat and another time when the car I was in turned on to its roof at 80 mph.

I have reasons to believe that the Bible is true, I have adressed these in my essay collection 'Three Men in a Hut' on Amazon kindle and will not attempt to repeat them here, but in summary I find Jesus trustworthy and choose to trust him, therefore accept the Bible as God's word and our guide. The Bible offers some principles regarding 'assisted dying'.

First, we have all come from God and are returning to him. Death is not extinction. Secondly, we will give account for what we have done and what we have failed to do. Next, God forbids us to kill one another (judicial execution and self defence are limited exceptions) Fourthly, we are told we can expect suffering in this fallen world, see the book of Job, Psalsm, life of Jesus, 1 Peter and elsewhere. Most importantly, we are offered reconciliation to God, forgiveness of sins, new life and everlasting joy if we turn to God in faith and penitence. This latter gift if true (as Christians contend it is) overcomes all negatives. The Bible tells us that weeping may tarry for a night but joy comes in the morning, and that this 'light, momentary affliction' is not worth comparing with the glory that is to come. We also hear, sadly, that this who will not accept Christ 'have no hope'. So we have a choice.

Having said all that, the Bible also says (Proverbs 31 I think) 'give strong drink to him who is dying that he may forget his misery'. I certainly think it is biblical therefore to let anyone who is terminally ill to have free access to alcohol and opiate and not fuss over much if it shortens their dying. I would draw the line at 'single effect' drugs like cyanide or intravenous potassium injections which are clear cut killing.

I'm putting the finishing touches to a novel 'Darwin's Adders: A Chronicle of Pagan Regland 2089' in which Christianity is outlawed and suicide and euthanasia is normalised. This is how pagans lived in the past and I thik how future paganism will pan out when Christian influence is removed. Anyone who thinks that we can legalise it for 'hard cases' and not see 'mission creep' is I think ignorant of recent history and frankly deluded both the reality of human nature. If euthanasia is legalised, 'can' will become 'should' and then 'must'. As a doctor, my patients need to know I am not licenced to kill them. But I would not deny any amount of morphine to the sick who want it.

kind regards. I do not know how other people feel but I am no stranger to physical and mental pain. Thankfully I have Saviour who has been through worse than I can imagine and who offers to bear my burdens. And yours.
10th September 2012
at 6:55pm
Thank you, Clive and Stephen, for your comments. I hope I've made it clear, in my post, that I'm opposed to the legalisation of euthanasia. However, if I may speak personally, I'm pretty sure that my father-in-law's imminent death was probably hastened by the quantity of morphine required to manage the pain he was suffering with cancer, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Likewise, my own father, who died earlier this year. As you've said, Stephen, we have the means to relieve pain and it would be cruel not to use it.

I've also had friends and relatives who have shown the same fortitude in the face of disablement as that of the paralympians we've seen this week. In fact, Hodder commissioned me to write the story of one girl who, despite being paralysed following a brain tumour, went on to live an inspired life when, to quote her, she was 'Healed Within'. I'm currently offering a free copy (postage and packaging excepted) to anyone who might benefit from it.

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