Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Right to Die

In recent months, on several occasions, Dignatis a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland has been very much in the news. Some say Dignitas is the name of the clinic; Wikipedia says that “Dignitas is a Swiss assisted suicide (euthanasia) group that helps those with terminal illness and severe physical and mental illnesses to die assisted by qualified doctors and nurses.”
More and more terminally ill people from the UK and no doubt other countries where assisted suicide is against the law, are making their way to the clinic to put and end to their lives.
In early July Dignatis hit the headlines once again when it was revealed that one of Britain’s most respected musicians, orchestral conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan had ended their lives within its walls whilst their children sat with them. Lady Joan Downes a former ballet dancer and a choreographer had terminal cancer of the liver and pancreas. Her husband, eleven years older at eighty five was virtually blind and had become increasingly deaf. By all accounts he relied on his wife totally and according to their son, would never have been able to cope with life without his wife who had only a matter of weeks to live. So rather than hang on and wait for his time to come, the man who had been principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and who had conducted for more than fifty years at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London made the decision to travel from the UK and end his life with a lethal concoction of barbiturate poisons whilst his wife did the same. They drank a clear liquid, lay down on beds next to each other and held hands across the space between them. Within minutes they were asleep and ten minutes later, they were both dead. So ended a love story that had lasted for fifty four years. The couple lived in my village: Blackheath Village in south east London. A beautiful village approximately six miles from central London.
Scotland Yard had said it will investigate the deaths . Assisting suicide is an offence in the UK that can carry a fourteen year prison sentence. Among the growing number of non-Swiss, known according to Time.com as “death tourists” who go to Zurich to end their lives are more than one hundred Britons . No move has been made by the UK authorities to prosecute family and friends who helped them. There have been several high profile cases.
There is of course, a great deal of controversy surrounding this clinic but it isn’t breaking any laws. Switzerland has some of the world’s most liberal statutes on assisted suicide: a doctor may provide a lethal dose of drugs to a terminally ill person if they feel there is absolutely no hope of recovery and that the patient is capable of making a sound decision to die. The patient administers the drug him/herself. Euthanasia, whereby the doctor administers the drug, is illegal.
It is said that Dignatis has strict rules. It is not just a case of being able to go there and end it all. According to the staff there is a detailed procedure in place which ensures that the ‘patient’ knows what they are doing and that this is what they really want. Family members are encouraged to be present when their loved ones pass away.
There is the question of finance. A nurse who is now an ex employee of Dignatis accused the organization of being ‘a production line of death concerned only with profits’. I read somewhere that an assisted suicide costs £4,000.00 but rockets to £7.000.00 if Dignatis arranges the funeral. It is also alleged that some of the deaths are not always peaceful. Peter Auhagen a German national suffered a gruesome seventy hour death and his demise almost brought the founder of the clinic to trial. Auhagen’s death was the subject of a German TV documentary. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1127413/Cashing-despair-Suicide-clinic-Dignitas-profit-obsessed-killing-machine-claims-ex-worker.html#ixzz0LvpFbPMb).

There are of course two schools of thought as what may be termed as ‘the sanctity of life’. Very much against assisted suicide is Pro Life Alliance whose chairwoman has said. “Britain is a world leader in palliative care doctors. I am sure Lord and Lady Downes could have lived out their lives happily”. Bel Mooney asks in a recent article “how can this woman (my words) define happiness for the sick and the dying?” The other school of thought is the charity, Dignity in Dying formerly known as Exit and before that, the National Euthanasia Society. Their motto is ‘Your Life, your Choice’.

Where do you draw the line? Who decides if enough is enough if the terminally ill person is not able to make a sound judgment? Dignity in Dying is all too aware of these questions. A devoted child wanting to see the end of suffering for a parent in pain calling for help or the unthinkable motives that may lie in the thoughts of uncaring relatives? The vulnerable have to be protected according to Bel Mooney and society must be aware of how the sick and the elderly are being cared for.

Two weeks ago the House of Lords in England defeated an attempt by Lord Falconer to make the Coroner’s and Justice Bill less punitive on those accompanying a loved one abroad to die. Hw wanted to dismiss the threat of prosecution of relatives who help the terminally ill who go to die in a country where euthanasia is not against the law. The Peers voted 194 – 141 to reject any reform of the Bill that would have made it legal for families to help Dignatis suicides in regulated circumstances. Dr Peter Saunders of “Care not Killing” agrees with the decision citing amongst other reasons, the deterrence of would-be abusers.

My belief tells me that life is sacred. It teaches me that I have no right to take my own or anyone else’s life under any circumstances. I nursed my dying mother and at no point did I have an overwhelming desire to put a pillow over her face but then again, although desperately ill with no hope of recovery, not once did she scream out in pain. Not once did she beg to be relieved of her agony and distress. Yes there were times during her six month illness when she shouted at me, when she accused me of not caring after I had spent night after sleepless night sitting with her, calming her, feeding her, bathing her, praying with her. I was inconsolable when she said terrible things to me. There were times which I now deeply regret when I lost patience , when I wasn’t as kind as I could have been, when the pressure and stress of seeing my beautiful mother so helpless got to me, when I argued with God. But through it all, it never entered my head that I should ‘put her out of her misery’. Had she asked me to help her to die which thankfully she never did, much as I loved and adored her I would have had to say ‘no’. Not because I was afraid of what would happen to me in the event that I might be found out by the authorities but because I live by the code that “God gives life and only God can take it away as and when He chooses”.

But I struggle. I really, really struggle.

I have never been faced with the horrendous circumstance whereby a child of mine has found herself pregnant as the result of a rape. I believe that life starts at the moment of conception but what would my reaction be to a pregnancy that came about through a violent act? My belief tells me that I would have to accept it and deal with the outcome later. But my mind tells me ‘immediate termination’. So if I am really honest, I have to ask myself the question that if I could even consider a termination in dire circumstances, how could I refuse a person in so much pain who is asking to be released. We can say so much. We can agree. We can disagree but who knows what we would do if ever faced with having to make those kinds of decisions? Who knows what we would do in the name of love?

Please God, don’t ever allow me to be in the position where I have to make those choices and let me not judge anyone who has already been there.