Assisted dying – my thoughts

This was always going to be a controversial post to write, but my blog was always supposed to be my outlet to comment on things I choose. As always my opinions are just that – mine. I would never try to force them on anyone else and I hope people are respectful enough to allow me to have my own beliefs.

There was press coverage at the weekend about a 75 year old lady, with no health problems, who travelled to Switzerland where it’s legal to seek assistance to die.

You can read some of the detail here.

There’s been a lot of hysteria and vitriol around her decision – which, it must be pointed out was HER decision. She was of sound mind and body, she just didn’t want to grow old and become a burden. To seek assistance to end her life (which she couldn’t do in the UK, because it’s illegal) seems very extreme when she had no health problems. But it’s surely not a decision she came to lightly. Indeed it’s not a decision that she could execute on a whim, as the process for to be accepted to a Swiss clinic is not an overnight one.

Assisted dying is, in effect, suicide. It is the choice to end one’s life. But the difference is dignity and openness. Final moments can be spent with friends and family, in pleasant surroundings. There is no hiding away and inflicting death upon yourself, for someone else to discover your body. There are no questions for those left behind as to how and why. There’s the chance to say proper goodbyes, and end life without pain or shame or fear.

It’s important to understand that assisted suicide clinics will only help people who are able to take the action of ending their life themselves. The process is via lethal dose of barbiturate which is prescribed, but not administered, by a medical professional. The patient must themselves be physically able to swallow the dosage. In many cases the process is filmed to avoid legal issues or accusations. Everything is done openly, following procedures. There is no pressure for a patient to go through with the procedure, if they change their mind.

It’s all about choice.

We have many choices in life – some of them easier than others. But, ultimately, we’re autonomous beings. We choose whether to get up in the morning. We choose whether to tattoo our bodies, or colour our hair. We choose what car we want to drive, and what we would like to eat. On a bigger scale we are encouraged to be responsible for ourselves by the government – through voting using our own decision making power, through earning money to support ourselves and not relying on the state. And yet, when it comes to the ultimate ownership of choice, we’re denied.

The Assisted Dying bill is regularly submitted and rejected in the House of Commons in the UK. There are spurious arguments that are wheeled out in defence of the rejection that really make no sense. Things like it will create a slippery slope where people feel they are a burden and hence can be persuaded that assisted dying might be best for those around them, or that because palliative care is available to make end of life comfortable, even for those with illness, that there is no need to make artificial death an available option.

Personally I call bullshit on such arguments. The slippery slope one is, quite frankly, ridiculous. I can’t imagine anyone of sound mind allowing themselves to be pressured into ending their life if they’re not ready. And let’s remember that we’re only talking about assisted dying for people who are lucid, aware, and able to make rational decisions. As for palliative care, yes it’s a valid option for some people, but it isn’t true that all pain can be controlled. I’ve read articles where medical professionals don’t want to administer the level of morphine a patient might need to be pain free in case the patient becomes addicted. And this in terminal cases where there’s no long term future for the person anyway. That’s aside from the loss of dignity that might arise from needing help going to the toilet or keeping clean.

The true crux of the matter is this. Why should something so personal, so inherently about us, be decided upon by a group of people in power? People who’s experiences, lives, expectations and religious beliefs may be so different to our own?

The truth is, it will reduce pressure – but not on healthcare professionals, state benefits for sick people, or family carers. That’s not what it’s about. It reduces pressure on individuals who fear they will have to live out a life they don’t want anymore because they don’t have the individual power to decide their own destiny. People who have terminal diseases and are in constant pain with no respite ahead. People who may have suffered paralysis and simply can’t face living a life relying on other people. And then, at the other extreme, people like the lady from the article who have made peace with their life and their experiences, and are content enough to say the time is now, with proper goodbyes to family and a descent into a final peaceful sleep.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it emerges that the lady in the article did have health issues. From what I have read about assisted dying, the procedure involves supplying medical records to the clinic that proves the reason that you want to end your life. Mental illness is not a valid reason. But things that can’t be treated, that negatively affect that person’s existence and cannot be changed are a valid reason for acceptance to the clinic.

Regardless of that, the point is it was her choice. She wasn’t coerced into it. She will have been assessed on multiple occasions by doctors who make sure the decision is what she wants. She will have been reassured that she can change her mind at any point. What she didn’t have was the choice to see out her final days in the comfort of her own surroundings, with her family and home comforts. She had to travel to Switzerland, like a fugitive, to take control over own body.

And that’s what the real crime is.

You can sign a petition to let your local MP know that you support the assisted dying bill in the UK.

I was pleased to receive an acknowledgement from Roger Godsiff MP, and even more pleased to read that he supports the Bill.

Thank you for your email regarding Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill which will have its Second Reading on the 11th September.
The issue of ‘assisted dying’ is an extremely contentious one and there are deeply held views on both sides of the argument.  For some the argument is a moral one in that deliberately ending a human life is wrong because life is sacred.  There is also understandable concern that doctor assisted dying is a first step on a slippery slope where the vulnerable could be threatened and where premature death becomes a cheap alternative to palliative care. 
For others it is about the right of an individual to choose whether to end their life or to suffer unbearable pain, misery and suffering. 
My own view, on balance, is that an individual should have the right to choose providing proper safeguards are built in and individual doctors are not obliged to participate in something which they have moral and ethical objections to.  In the state of Oregon in America they have had a law, since 1997, called the ‘Death with Dignity Act’.  It allows (but does not oblige) doctors to prescribe lethal doses to patients with less than six months to live who asked for them.  A second doctor has to agree that the patient has less than six months to live and there is also a cooling off period of 15 days.
The Bill being proposed by Rob Marris is similar to the ‘Death with Dignity Act’ in Oregon and it has the additional safeguard that the medical assessment of the two doctors has to be verified and checked by a Judge.  I think this is sensible.
I will, of course, listen to the arguments being made both for and against the Bill but as I have explained in this response my inclinations are to support the Bill because I believe in the right of an individual to end their life and not to have to endure suffering in the final months of their life. 
I hope I have made my position perfectly clear on this issue.
Kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
Roger Godsiff MP