Euthanasia - can we live without it?
A look at Assisted Dying ahead of a Parliamentary debate on Friday (11 September). By Chris Goswami
You may have heard of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a Paris-based editor, who suffered a stroke aged only 42. Left paralyzed, speechless and only able to move his left eyelid, he used this rudimentary movement to dictate an entire book. Here he describes a moving occasion where he was taken out in his wheelchair with his two children…
“……. While I have become something of a zombie father, Theophile and Celeste are very much flesh and blood, energetic and noisy. I will never tire of seeing them. ….
As we walk Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips. His movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful as if he were dealing with an unpredictable animal. As soon as we slow down Celeste cradles my head in her bare arms, covers my forehead with noisy kisses and says over and over “you’re my dad, you’re my dad” as if in an incantation.
Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But this time we spend the whole of this symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad, is still a dad."
It is heart-rending and it made me realise that sometimes the value of our human life may only be fully recognised by those around us - a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.
The UK bill on Assisted Dying will be debated in the Parliament on September 11. It seeks to provide assisted suicide for people of sound mind with less than six months to live.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?
In certain cases, there may be nothing wrong with this bill as it is.
Bob Cole ended his life at the Swiss Dignitas Clinic in August. He suffered from an aggressive form of lung cancer which had him bent double in pain, crouching like an animal. “That’s no life”, he said, “I should be able to die with dignity in my own country, in my own bed. The law needs to change”.
BUT changing the law leads to further and further changes. In 2002 when Euthanasia was first legalised in Holland nobody imagined that by 2015 a mother suffering severe tinnitus and with two children would be legally killed. Nor did they foresee “Euthanasia on Wheels” mobile-units people can call if the family doctor is unwilling to authorise their death. There is always a “slippery slope”.
And note that the high profile cases in the pro-euthanasia camp such as Paul Lamb would not be helped by this law because they do not have less than 6 months to live. So clearly there will be pressure for further legal changes once the initial bill is passed. That is always the way to replace the law – a little bit at a time.
But there is a second, much simpler reason why we should not pass this bill….. people change their minds. Alison Davies wanted to die for 10 years but had a change of heart as she found a new calling even though her suffering continued. And you only have to “ask Google” to find recent cases of people requesting euthanasia and later changing their view.
WHY IS THIS AN ISSUE NOW?
Medical technology has caused huge improvements in our care, but there are unwelcome consequences. For example between 1991 and 2001 UK life expectancy increased by 2.2 years. Sounds great! But in the same period, healthy life expectancy increased by only 0.6 years. So one effect of technological innovation is a growing period at the end of our lives during which we can expect to be chronically ill*.
Ageing populations – the UK Government Actuary Department calculated that in 70 years time there will be many thousands of Britons aged over 110*.
Choice – we live in a world where we expect to choose everything, from my kids’ school, to my supermarket, to my pension provider. Death is the last thing of which we have no choice ….. but we try.
Western countries that allow euthanasia include Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and several US states including Oregon. In France a law is imminent.
IS THERE AN ANSWER?
One thing we must not do is over simplify the discussion or minimise people’s suffering. It’s easy to get behind conversation-terminating clichés like “life is sacred - not ours to end when we choose”, but these don’t help as there are clichés in both directions of this argument.
(And by the way the answer to “life is sacred” is: Why is only length of life sacred? Why is a person’s quality of life not sacred?).
Baroness Finlay who opposes this bill said: “licensing doctors in this country to help people commit suicide risks mistakes, abuse and pressure on people who feel they are a burden. …. The law exists to protect us, all of us and especially the most vulnerable among us, from harm - including self-harm”.
I believe our current laws on assisted dying are imperfect but as good as they can be. Here euthanasia is illegal yet somehow possible in some cases. Well over 200 Britons have broken UK law by helping relatives go to Switzerland for an assisted death but none have been prosecuted. The slippery slope starts with a small shift in culture, changing people’s perception by degrees so that those with devastating illnesses start to be viewed differently, and start to view themselves differently.
We can live without that.
Chris Goswami is Director of Marketing & Communications at Openwave Mobility and is studying and training for ordained ministry in the Baptist Church. He blogs at www.7minutes.net where this article first appeared. It is republished with permission.
Nurse screen: Shutterstock / sfam_photo
Heartbeat: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia