Well, here we are in a new year. I’d hardly want to add to the storm of retrospection, recapitulation, wishlists and general crystal-gazing that you have been subjected to over the last fortnight or so. The editors have put together packages, the experts have spoken, the new has been rung in and the old has been rung out. So I’ll give in to what may be some deep-seated perversity and look at a variation of the ringing out bit, with a twist.
This week, after a year of hearing evidence and arguments, and deliberation, the Commission on Assisted Dying is going to recommend to the British government that helping terminally ill people to commit suicide should be made legal, though under strict safeguards.
The Commission, chaired by Lord Falconer, a former lord chancellor, is an independent body, principally funded by businessman Bernard Lewis and best-selling author Sir Terry Pratchett (In Pratchett’s wildly popular Discworld series of fantasy novels, Death is a character that appears frequently). Pratchett has Alzheimer’s Disease.
A file photo of Lord Falconer, a former lord chancellor (Bloomberg)
According to The Guardian, “the report is expected to recommend that assisted dying be legalised only for a very limited category of terminally ill patients and under procedures that are rigorously monitored. It is likely to suggest tight controls on how and when lethal medicines are prescribed for use in assisted suicide. Procedures to ensure that those involved are made fully aware of all the palliative and social care available to them are also likely to be spelt out.” Currently, under British law, someone who assists in the suicide of a friend or loved one liable to up to 14 years in prison.
What is certain is that the report will spark a massive debate on euthanasia.
It’s fascinating to read the transcripts of the evidence presented before the Commission. For instance, Peter Bailey, a trustee with the London Cheshire Disability, and himself disabled for the last 35 years after breaking his back: “I’m concerned that opportunity would become obligation; that the onset of impairment releases huge angst at the loss of capacity and function; and that at that time we need protection from ourselves, but those times will pass. And finally, in the world of disability we really need help to live, not help to die… I just think death is part of living. The idea that you can come along and subcontract out of a bit of it doesn’t seem quite right to me really. It’s part of our contribution to the world, coping with situations like (terminal illness).”
And how does the patient choose that he would rather die? How can you be sure that the decision has been completely thought-through and should be obeyed? Said Tim Maughan, professor of clinical oncology: “Just think about this: as a dying patient…there’ll be some people who are very clear that they want assisted dying. There’ll be other patients who are vey clear that they don’t want that…But I suspect that for many people in the middle it will be a grey area…that they may come to a decision this week that they don’t want to have assisted dying, but next week they’re feeling a bit more uncomfortable or something – and the option comes up again. And it’s kind of like the magnetic pull of that continuing option and I’m concerned that that in itself [it] might be a burden to patients.”
Surprisingly, at least one priest supported assisted dying. Said Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism: “We consider heroic those who die in certain circumstances. If I throw myself in front of a car to save another person, and I die, that would be heroic. If I’m a soldier sent off to war by government, I am heroic. I’m not sure that it isn’t heroic, or the right of an individual to say that I myself feel that I am burdening my relatives, and therefore I myself, as an independent human being, taking account of everything before me, could say that I don’t wish my children to be dragged to see me, or feel morally obliged to see me, or guilty about not coming to see me, in a particular moment (and)… I want to make a decision to end my life.” But, as a priest, doesn’t he believe that God alone is the giver or taker of life? Rich’s reply: “In many, many cases, we intervene, if I can put it crudely, to assist God in the process of life and death. Fertility treatment would be one example. Given the choice between prayer or chemotherapy, if I had cancer, I might chose chemotherapy, combined with prayer, or in place of prayer. And I think everybody would say it would be legitimate to choose chemotherapy rather than prayer. So God as the giver and taker of life is assisted by human desire and the human mind. And therefore I am consoled, if you like, that God, if he or she has any interest, will forgive me for what I’ve just said.”
Moral philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock put it simply: “I think everybody, and particularly the more aged one gets the more this is true, wants a good death. That is they want to die well; they want euthanasia in the literal sense. I believe that there is a very large number of people who don’t have that good death; who have a bad death. And I think that’s a moral issue that society has got to face.”
Dr Ann McPherson of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying has pancreatic cancer and has given only a few more months to live. Said she: “Healthcare professionals have a duty of care to their patients which informs our belief that people should not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life in a way that could be considered cruel and inhuman. In achieving this freedom of choice for our patients, it is essential that the law supports both the doctors and their patients in their desires and their freedom, rather than limiting these rights.”
It is unlikely that the current British government will change the law based on the committee’s recommendations. Prime Minister David Cameron has already said that he is opposed to any such move.
In India, last year the Supreme Court legalised passive euthanasia by means of the withdrawal of life support to patients in a permanent vegetative state. But active euthanasia, including the administration of lethal compounds for the purpose of ending life, is still illegal, as it is in most countries.
What would I want for myself when I see life ebbing away, slowly and painfully, leaving me only the capacity to be a burden on people who love me? I would choose a quick death, and thank you very much, life. But that’s only my personal opinion and that’s the only sort of opinion that is valid in this debate: individual opinion and individual choice—every man for himself.
Did I just spoil the New Year mood?