Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Guest Post: Live or Let Die?

I'd been meaning to write a piece about this topic for some time, but could never put it into a comprehensible or articulate manner. Luckily I found someone who could.

Guest post - by Wendy Fraser (aka PJ)

I’ll lay my cards on the table straight away, I’m delighted by the ruling in support of Debbie Purdy and I also wholeheartedly support a change in the laws surrounding assisted suicide and euthanasia. Undoubtedly a number of people will already have decided upon reading those statements that they disagree with me, that I am wrong and they are right. Well that’s okay. This is not an easy topic to discuss, and it’s certainly highly emotive and controversial, but my motive in stating my viewpoint is the hope that it may ignite some sparks of useful debate. My fear is that the debate will yet again fade from the spotlight without progressing beyond previous circuitous arguments.

It’s hard to be challenged on something that feels like a moral absolute, even harder to acknowledge that there is value in the reciprocal viewpoint. I experienced this a few years ago when I was training to work with a charity that deals with suicide. I walked through the door with the complete belief that we were all there to prevent suicide, yet when my training was complete I left with a different point of view. We learned to understand that we couldn’t tell the people we were speaking to that it was wrong of them to consider taking their own lives. How could we possibly understand how they had come to that precipice in their lives when we weren’t living their lives and experiencing their emotional or physical pain?

Our cornerstone was self-determination, that everyone is entitled to the right to decide whether or not they choose to live. Now that doesn’t mean that we didn’t hope that the person we were talking to would change their mind but the key fact was that we didn’t impose our hopes and beliefs upon them. My point in telling this is that all the people on my training course changed their viewpoints, quite radically in some cases, because we were prepared to be challenged and open to being educated about a different point of view.

So how does this serve this debate about assisted suicide? Well firstly I suspect that many people will be able to state deep-seated viewpoints based upon moral beliefs, religious teachings and personal opinions. Those all have tremendous value but my challenge to you would be this - if you found yourself in a similar situation to Debbie Purdy do you think there is a chance those beliefs might be challenged to the extent that you could feel differently than you do now? I guess that’s a bit of a rhetorical question because it’s impossible to say with total certainty how we would react to such an extreme situation but my experience has taught me that I didn’t actually have to change my beliefs, just my perception of the issues.

One of the things that don’t serve this debate well is generalisations and to be honest I think that also demeans the serious nature of the topics being discussed. We can’t possibly compare one life-threatening illness to another, one experience of insufferable pain and anguish to another – and yet we find ourselves discussing guidelines and boundaries to define the legal processes that do just that, they generalise. It is a truly terrifying prospect to imagine that we could create a legal definition whereby life would be defined as being considered no longer tolerable or desirable. What if we got it wrong? What if it was open to abuse? That honestly scares me. But I am more concerned by the prospect of laws that do not recognise that suffering can be intolerable, that life can deteriorate into nothing more than an unbearable existence.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to these issues, no easy path to tread to resolve the many moral and ethical challenges. But one thing I am absolutely positive of is that we must make a stand for our beliefs, a stand for those who are truly vulnerable and at the end of their physical and emotional tethers. I won’t agree with all of the viewpoints I read on these topics, but I do believe that we have to listen to all of them, learn from the experiences of those who can contribute personal insights and be prepared to engage in a debate that will undoubtedly challenge all of us.


Caron 4 August 2009 at 09:29  

Another excellent posting from Wendy. Her first on Kez's blog last month was similarly good.

Wendy, you have a talent for very gently, non threatingly, making people challenge what to them are firm beliefs.

On this issue, however, I have no firm belief. I am completely torn. My instinctive liberalism tells me that decisions on whether to take their own life should be left to the individual. Like you say, I can't imagine how I'd feel in their situation.

However, I have experience of being around people suffering from terminal conditions who have gone through phases of being absolutely sure that they wanted to take their own lives, but a relatively simple adjustment of their pain relief made them glad that they hadn't.

I know that there is something of a myth that the palliative care specialists can always get you out of pain. The photos of Jade Goody earlier in the year were enough to tell you that if you didn't know already. They need to keep trying though and I wouldn't like to think that legalised assisted suicide would be seen as an excuse to stop research into palliative care.

My main worry about this is while my instinctive liberalism respects the individual, it also wants to protect the vulnerable. I would not like to think of people who would rather live out their days naturally being pressured by family, or society, to end their lives so as not to be a burden.

Conversely to that, though, I think it's quite legitimate to have concerns about being a burden. My daughter's an only child. The last thing on earth I'd want for her is for her to spend ages watching me die horribly of some awful disease. She has her own life to live. I have a right to think like that, but nobody has the right to force me to. Does that make sense?

PJ 4 August 2009 at 11:32  

Thanks for your comments Caron. I don't think pain can be taken as the sole measure of tolerable or intolerable existence, and I appreciate that is absolutely not what you were doing, there are myriad factors to consider which change depending upon individual circumstances and wellbeing.

I think that what places like Dignitas do is that they address the issue of dignity in death as well as pain factors, quite literally given their name. There is no dignity in suffering a long, painful, incapacitating death. The loss of dignity and utter dependence upon others must be almost as appalling as the condition that led to it.

But you are quite right that what seems like a desperate situation today may not feel so desperate tomorrow, or next week. Pain can be managed, to a certain extent, dignity and independence much less so.

The contradiction here for me is that I believe I would not want my children to have to be burdened by caring for me were my life to reach an intolerable point for whatever reason. However, if it was one of my children I can't imagine ever giving up hope that a miracle might happen....

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