The Right To Die; The Fight To Live

Posted at 19:57pm on 12th November 2008

On the day that the news broke of the British teenager who has chosen to reject a heart transplant, an e-mail arrived in my in-box from a young woman who has no such choice. Both stories are incredibly moving.

THE RIGHT TO DIE WITH DIGNITY

Hannah Jones, the thirteen year old, has had leukaemia since the age of five, and chemotherapy to treat it has left her with a hole in the heart. Three operations to fit a pace-maker resulted in a collapsed lung. She is a sick girl, for whom a heart transplant offers the only hope. Not that this would guarantee success, nor remove the necessity for further extensive treatment and medication. With much of the past eight years spent in and out of hospital wards, it is understandable that Hannah has asked to be allowed to die with dignity in her home, surrounded by her family.

Her parents were outraged when they learned, via a telephone call, that their daughter was to be forcibly removed from her home, based on an assumption that they were preventing her treatment. Although I understand the reasons behind this intervention, I share their outrage, and applaud the prevention of such action at the eleventh hour.

SOME MUST FIGHT TO LIVE

But much as I support Hannah Jones in her decision, I also applaud the open letter written by another Hannah: Hannah Pudsey. She, too, was traumatised by years of surgery and hospitalisation. She, too, had not one hole in the heart but two. She, too, faced a heart transplant at the age of thirteen. And now, aged twenty, she rejoices in her decision to accept that offer and live. Despite respecting Hannah Jones’ decision, she urges her to think again.

THE RIGHT TO DIE DEBATE

Hannah Jones’ story demonstrates our muddled thinking when it comes to issues of life and death. On the one hand we clamour for people with debilitating diseases to have the right to die. On the other, we seek to prevent the decision of a thirteen year old to live a little before she dies.

But is it as simple as that? Why live a little when you could live a lot? Why is it that so many of these tragedies seem to centre on a trip to Disney World in Florida? Is that really the pinnacle of human experience?

A REASON TO LIVE AND . . .

My e-mail was from a young woman called Lydia – a complete stranger – who is facing death from cancer. Her life expectancy is put at less than a year. She is twenty-four weeks pregnant. That means, if she goes full-term, that her baby will be orphaned just at the point when he begins to become most attached to his Mummy.

With Lydia’s permission I have reproduced the bulk of what she has to say on the Dear Mel page of my website. Nothing in there, nor in the subsequent e-mail she sent me, speaks of the trauma she faces. In fact, her mention of a ‘difficult time’ is almost dismissive. It made me cry!

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE

So what non-judgemental conclusions can be drawn from these stories? I am reminded of a woman I knew well over many years. She was one of the most Godly women I’ve ever known. But life wasn’t easy for her and she often spoke of her longing ‘to be with the Lord’. A trip to Disney Lane, or wherever, wasn’t remotely on the horizon, because living a little wasn’t the desire of her heart. She lived a lot – because she understood that eternity is in the here and now – and she knew where she was going when she left this planet.

Like Lydia she faced death with cancer. And suddenly, all the yearning she had experienced for death became a yearning for life. I went to see her in the hospice. Everything in her wanted to live. How would her husband – a man who, as a child, had been interred in a prison-of-war camp in Siberia – fare without her? And what of her children? The grandchildren who had yet to be born? Her fight to live astounded those of us who knew her.

BORN TO ETERNAL LIFE

But isn’t this instinct for survival, for life, exactly what has been created in us when we were made in God’s image? Whatever heaven may offer, he’s put us here to marvel at the beauty of this world, to muddle through our mistakes and struggle through our traumas. And ultimately, we hope, to gain in wisdom and love.

Whatever Hannah Jones’ decision, I hope that somehow, someone will talk to her about the transience of trips to Disney Land. And remind her of the permanence of life in eternity.

Read Hannah Jones’ story here

Read Hannah Pudsey’s letter here

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