Tuesday, 21 October 2008


The current debate over euthanasia or assisted suicide is just heartbreaking.

I felt very strongly about it when it came back into the news a couple of weeks ago with the case of Debbie Purdy.

It seems unconscionable that this incredibly brave woman, who is now confined to a wheelchair because of her MS, should not be allowed to end her life at a time of her choosing and run the risk that her husband might be held accountable for assisting her.

However, as Baroness Warnock said in The Times “It would seem to me to be a blatant abuse to say we are going to allow for assisted suicide abroad but not in our own backyard.”

Lady Warnock, 84, who recently provoked an outcry when she said that people suffering from dementia should be allowed to end their lives for the greater good, said that unless the ban on assisted suicides was also lifted in Britain, such a move would lead to a “two-tier death service”.

I have a close family member with Alzheimer's. The ravages of this disease have turned a beautiful lady into a skeletal animal whose physical attacks on members of staff and her own family are only controlled by large doses of sedatives so that she sleeps most of the day. She is not the woman that any of us knew and no longer recognises any family member but, even though she previously expressed the wish to die, we are powerless to help her because her religion precludes suicide. What is worse is that, when she catches any illnesses that, in days gone by, would have carried her off this mortal coil, she is kept alive with doses of antibiotics.

And then we come to Dan James, the most recent entry in this sad ethical quandary. A healthy young athlete cut down in his prime by a random sports injury that paralysed him from the chest down. The proposed laws would not apply to him for his was not a terminal illness and yet, to him, it was a death sentence. The inability to move for himself, to be forced to rely on others to carry out his every need. The indignity and the horrendous loss of his freedom made him try to take his own life on at least one occasion. Until, finally, his parents took it on themselves to help their child to carry out his final wish, with the help of Dignitas. I cannot even begin to imagine how horrendous such a decision could have been. To have to bury your own child is, surely, the most unnatural thing in the world.

There were reports in the paper from other people who have been similarly injured explaining that they too went through the suicidal stage but, in time, came out the other side to a better life that is fulfilling enough for them to want to continue living.

Perhaps we should have a law that starts with an Expression of Intent but which can only be carried through after a period of a year...?

I don't know the answers. I only know that it seems wrong to force someone to live as a shadow of their former self when they no longer want to. And just as wrong to prosecute a relative for assisting them to carry out their desire.


Anonymous said...

this is a tough issue. It would seem to me that if someone of sound mind (like the athlete) wanted to end it then so be it. The Alzheimer patient would be a little bit different, in my view.
This might be the only issue I can't argue!

Good post.

scarlet-blue said...

I agree with you, Ms Cake, but I worry that there would be people out there who would abuse an assisted suicide system, like Harold Shipman. It would have to be very tightly monitored.

nitebyrd said...

There is a definite chance for abuse. Controls would need to be strict. A Living Will, made when someone is capable of the choice should be in place. I don't have answers, either but think if your life is not the quality you want it to be due to illness or injury, then you should be able to make the choice to end it.

Ms. Inconspicuous said...

As someone who watched her Grandfather through Alzheimer's, I can say that assisted suicide is not always a "murder" of the one you love--for the one you love has died long before. What's left is something that they, themselves, resent--frustration leads to anger as they *know* they were someone else once, and now they can't even remember to swallow properly all the time...

I agree that the control issue would be a problem, particularly in issues where there is a contestable will or inheritance questions (or even life insurance).

Walker said...

There are demons on both sides of the debate.
I can defend either side and would end up in the same spot because we live in a world that isn't perfect.
A world filled with compassion and deceit, greed and love.
One would argue that making it legal would be one step closer to forced euthanasia at a certain age like in the movie Logan’s Run down the road.
Then there are the people suffering, they should get a say in how they live because this is not about dieing it’s about living.
Either way I see it, there is someone who is sick and dieing, that saddens me more than this debate and we have to argue about how one innocent person dies.

World Champ Stephen Neal said...

Normally I would offer up a witty remark about my "World Champ-ness." However, it doesn't quite seem to fit the topic. Tough topic.

Ro said...

I wish I had answers to this question. All I really have though is concerns and a huge sense of relief that I don't have to be in charge of legislating or prosecuting over "assisted suicides".

And I feel immense sympathy for anyone who finds themselves in a position where this comes up for consideration.

Kevin Musgrove said...

It's a difficult one. Shipman's legacy is an awful one, as Scarlet suggests. And there have been times when only the consequences of the deed to others has stopped me. On the other hand I can't see the morality of sustained medical intervention to keep the shell of a body going just because its possible.

I wish I had an answer, sorry.

justme said...

Good post....but I really don't have an 'answer'. I suspect there isn't one. If the world was governed by principles of compassion and respect, maybe. But it isn't, is it?

B said...

cake, you have got us all thinking again. as you and your readers I have no answer, I doubt there is a 'correct' answer. My personal belief is that there must be a way to allow it. It is imperative we find the way. If we revolve our laws around the Shipmans of the world then they are winning, and the people who need our help are needlessly suffering. As my Aunt so succinctly pointed out as she watched her husband fade into a wretched version of his former glory, 'you wouldn't treat a dog this badly'. She eventually met her demise at the first hint of her own dementia because she refused to go through the same indignity. The worst of it was she used the only sure way she knew - strickenine (sp?), which must have caused horrendous unnecessary suffering.

Mr. Nighttime said...

OT - Tag, you're it...

The Dotterel said...

The openness to abuse it the biggest problem; apart from that, I think the matter is simple - who is in control if not yourself? And what bigger decision could there be to make? Provided time has elapsed and the request is genuine, I think some form of assistance should be given. We're happy allocating death quite randomly on battlefields.

having my cake said...

I think the main thing is that the decision itself should not be a secret thing between patient and doctor. The Living Will concept witnessed by a couple of your closest friends that you are of sound mind to make such a decision and then carried out when the time has come with the approval of those witnesses should stop any possibility of the Harold Shipman scenario.

As I said before, it wouldnt help those whose faith precludes suicide but it would make life and death a great deal easier for a great many more of the terminally ill/severely injured.

Brian said...

Just down the road from me in Washington state they are having a ballot initiative on this. I-1000 for assisted suicide.
Martin Sheen has appeared on an ad on tv and radio against it.

They shoot horses don't they? I'll never understand why we don't extend that compassion to our fellow man.
Good points raised re wills and life insurance but surely appropriate legislation can account for that. Have there been any major problems on such issues in Belgium or Holland or where ever it is that allows assisted suicide?
Assisted suicide does already exist in our hospitals in a limited sense if anyone has talked long enough to a nurse or doctor. (Not reviving, increased doses that kind of thing)

Brian said...

The assisted suicide bill was passed in Washington State last night. Good old Bill Hick's had an interesting take on this. ;-)