Dying with dignity

by Stuart on 15 June 2011

So, a day after everyone else, I watched the Terry Pratchett programme on assisted suicide. I found it very moving and very thought provoking.

I’ve heard it criticised by people who fear it is the first step towards a system that will allow us to dispose of unwanted people – that’s putting it more bluntly than most, but that’s what the point boils down to. I couldn’t see anywhere in the programme that suggested this. On the contrary, the Swiss doctor was very clear – the person taking the killing drug had to be of sound mind, and know exactly what s/he was doing.

Sir Terry asked if he would be able to take his own life when his Alzheimer’s had progressed to an intolerable state, and was effectively told “No”. If he’s too far advanced, then he won’t pass the sound mind test, and won’t be allowed to take the drug. And that’s the point – it is he that will administer the drug, not anyone else.

So how does this advance the cause of ‘doing away with unwanted people’? I don’t think it does. Where in this system is the loophole that allows someone to take along their aged Granny, or their inconveniently disabled relative and quietly dispose of them? I can’t see one.

What I can see is an intelligent man asking us in the UK to think about this difficult issue, to put aside the knee-jerk reactions and actually apply some brain power. Would it not be a mark of maturity to allow people to control their own demise?

In reality, we have assisted death today. My father had a massive stroke, and was in a hospital bed just breathing, with such massive damage that he would never recover. When he contracted pneumonia the doctor told us that they could treat it and almost certainly cure it, but Dad would remain essentially a husk – breathing but not living in any true sense of the word. The alternative was to make him comfortable, pain free, and ‘let nature take its course’.

How many such conversations take place in hospitals all over the country every day? How many families face the difficult decision to switch off the life support? In these situations, family members and medics act on behalf of the patient. And there are safeguards in place to ensure that this power over helpless patients is not abused.

How different is that to the patient themselves electing to end their own suffering?

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