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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Right to Die – their fear or ours?

For some time I have been following news articles relating to our right to die. One incident that had the British media in a frenzy recently was the case of 45-year-old Debbie Purdy, who has terminal primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Purdy went to the High Court seeking reassurance that when the time came when she no could no longer handle her disease, she could fly to a clinic in Switzerland to be euthanised, and her husband could accompany her without the risk of being prosecuted on his return. She lost her legal battle. A 1961 law called the Suicide Act still rules in the UK, which means that the maximum penalty for anyone assisting suicide is 14 years in jail. (Purdy vs Director of Publid Prosecutions (Blog Spot).

In spring last year, Dan James, a young promising rugby player in his early twenties from Worcester, became paralysed from the chest down after being injured in an accident during training. He since repeatedly tried to commit suicide, as he “was not prepared to live what he felt was a second-class existence”. His parents respected his wishes, and took him to Dignitas in Switzerland. James thus became one of the youngest Britons to ever have flown abroad to die.

Ironically the criminal justice system in this country has never prosecuted anyone who “assisted” a suicide by accompanying a terminally ill person to a Swiss clinic. They turned a blind eye to the parents of the young Dan James, and they would have done so for Debbie Purdy, had she not made her plea so public that they did not have a choice but do their duty as law enforcers.

Only last month Dr Philip Nitschke, the Australian doctor founder of the pro-euthanasia group EXIT, came to East Sussex to give talks on assisted suicide in Eastbourne (after being turned down at several other locations), on the southeast coast of England. The hotel where the event was originally booked rejected his workshop at the last minute, after authorities and the police started suggesting it could be considered criminal offence. Tabloids splattered headlines in large bold font across their front pages dubbing him “Dr Death”. The official stance from local authorities was that it is all very well for Dr Nitschke to impart practical suicide information to those who may want to choose that path in future, but they could not be seen as collaborating with or condoning someone giving advice on how to end life, which is against British laws. (
Doctor Death Suicide Workshop Prevented)

The whole ongoing debate on whether people with terminal diseases should or should not be allowed to have their life support machines or drugs suspended made me think about why it is that people get so scandalised by the idea of assisted suicide.

Whether we abhor it or not, death is an inevitable certainty at the end of this path called ‘life’, on which all of us living creatures travel. Most of us do not like to think much about our deaths unless we are forced to, by age, disease, or other extreme circumstances. Death is almost a taboo concept in western societies, seen as entirely separate from life, the closing of a chapter, but never the opening of another. Religions often draw on people’s fears of what comes after death – that is, heaven or hell – and many embrace religion as a means to salvation from the end, the suffering of hell, or the pain of separation from their loved ones.

But what if there is no separation, and no suffering, and certainly no end when we cross this borderline labelled ‘death’. What if it is just a transition to another state, another dimension, where there is no distress, only peace, deep peace and an abundance of light and love, as reported by people who have had near death experiences.

Whether the views on death of catholics, protestants, Buddhists, muslims, humanists, etc are correct or not does not interest me here. My only question is why we react with such vehemence and horror when someone expresses a wish to die because their life with a terminal disease has become intolerable. What do we know of their anguish, their pain? Who are we to dictate what choices they should take when we are not privy of their mental and physical suffering?

I do not believe in death as an easy exit out of all problems in life, even those involving disease and pain. If at all possible, everyone should be encouraged to find the strength to tackle them, and be supported with tools to do so. But in some cases, it may simply not be possible. In some cases, the person may truly, honestly wish to be allowed to go. When someone says to a terminally ill patient they cannot possibly be serious about wanting to die, that there’s still hope, and they must hang on to it, are they thinking about the patient’s suffering, or their own? If we cannot even face the fact of our own mortality, can we ever responsibly give our blessing to someone else’s wish to die?

The other week, at our dog’s vet, I witnessed a dog owner bringing in her very ill mutt to be put down. It was a first for me (I had never had a pet before), and very distressing to watch, as we nearly lost Binks a few months ago ourselves. I noticed her wiping a tear when the vet called her in and said, “So have you made a decision?”, then the door was shut, followed by a heavy and uncomfortable silence. Minutes later the young lady came out sobbing, and stormed out of the surgery with an empty collar and lead in her hand. So, I thought, we take it for granted a dog should be let to die if its quality of life deteriorates below a certain level, but we find it scandalous to do so to a human being?

This week a couple of article I came across in The Guardian finally spurred me to put all these ideas together in a blog. A girl diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of four underwent very toxic chemotherapy, which in turn gave hear a heart muscle disease called cardiomyopathy. In other words, the she ended up with a hole in the heart. By the age of 13 she had had six major operations and had spent most of her life in hospitals. Finally, she decided to turn down what would have been her seventh surgery – a heart transplant – and chose to spend the rest of her days in the comfort of her own home. Her parents supported her decision. If she is lucky, she may be able to spend one last Christmas with her family. You can read the article by clicking on this link:
Hannah's Choice by Patrick Barkham, Guardian 12.11.2008

This was followed by another heart-breaking story told by the mother of a child, now deceased, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 18 months. At 13 the girl decided to refuse any further treatment, fully conscious of the consequences. In her final moments, she even had the presence of mind to ask for a priest to give her the last rites (she was Roman Catholic), and she thanked her parents for everything…. It took me a while to finish reading the article, as thick tears clouded my vision… (See:
'We told her we loved her. She said, "Thank you for everything"' Guardian 12.11.2008)
I was awestruck and humbled by this young child’s maturity and her strength in facing death, when here I was, getting stressed about not having a job, about exams next week, about what I am going to wear at my wedding.

Children can teach us so much about life. Some children can even show us death is not such a terrible thing after all. Often it is a choice, a needed choice, and maybe, just maybe, doctors need to be given license to mercifully kill when a life free of pain is no longer an option.

Controversy on matters of life and death is never-ending – I doubt there will ever be an agreement about them as their interpretation is so personal and abstract. Personally, I cannot understand how a politician, for instance, can at the same time oppose abortion but find the killing of civilians during a war in the Middle East justifiable. What exactly means to be pro-life?

Life is precious. I do not advocate death or euthanasia as a way to scrap life the way we delete junk mail – something inconvenient we just want out of the way. Life is beautiful. Although long shadows can be cast over its beauty in parts of the journey. But reading about these children who died or are about to die with the same courage they lived their short lives, hearing their parents’ united voice saying, “we are not sorry we stood by her decision; ill children deserve more respect”, it made me wonder whether it is not us, adults, that have some serious growing up to do.

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