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Choose death

A Bill being debated in the UK parliament would tell the terminally ill that they're better off dead.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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The image of Paula Radcliffe dropping out of the marathon was one that, at least for Britons, will endure. What was striking about what should have been simply a personal tragedy was the reaction to it. ‘Brave Paula’?

Only Radcliffe will ever really know why she did it. Decisions to quit might, in hindsight, be regarded as understandable and with some sympathy. But to call them brave takes away from the bravery of those who stay the course. The cameras, which in the past would have turned demurely away from Radcliffe’s misery and focused on the rest of the race, instead zoomed in (just as they had when another woman athlete vomited). A grief fest ensued (1). The message seemed to be that it’s okay to drop out if the race isn’t going the right way.

A Bill presently being considered by a Select Committee in the House of Lords, known as the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill 2004, will essentially help people to quit life (2). Whatever the arguments of its supporters that it will prevent ‘back-street suicides’ and, even more ludicrously, ‘protect the vulnerable’ (how – by killing them?), its real effect will be to diminish the value with which human life is presently regarded in law.

We all presently have the ‘right to die’. Methods of terminating one’s life are limited only by one’s imagination. Suicide is legal, and with a little forward planning, anyone can do it. The proverbial man on the bridge can already jump. Instead, we are effectively being asked by the Bill and its supporters to provide wheelchair ramps so that disabled people can kill themselves too. (For those who think this is an exaggeration, lawyers for Diane Pretty invoked Article 14 of the European Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination (3).) We will be obliged to give a helpful shove to the man on the bridge and, most awfully, applaud his decision. How brave!

The Bill itself is remarkably imprecise: it defines ‘terminal illness’ as that which is ‘inevitably progressive’, incurable (though its symptoms may be treatable), and which is ‘likely to result in the patient’s death within a few months at most’.

At very best, the Bill formalises and thus complicates an act of compassion that doctors have long practiced. The Bill states that doctors must keep an exacting record of their patient’s decision witnessed by themselves and two others, and have end-of-life decisions overseen by a monitoring commission. Doctors face a possible five years in prison if the declaration goes missing. At present doctors face only those most concerned – the family and the medical personnel involved. It is a sombre and serious decision that should be taken on the basis of compassion, not because all the right boxes on some form have been ticked. No doctor has been successfully prosecuted in the UK to date. If the law ain’t broke, why fix it?

The Bill’s real purpose is to give societal sanction for these decisions to end a life – to make it okay to drop out. We are being asked by the Bill and its sponsors to redefine dignity away from its social meaning; it will instead be equated with the ability to perform basic bodily functions. This is certainly the meaning conveyed by Diane Pretty’s lawyers, who argued that the present law condemned Pretty to ‘increasing loss of dignity’. It is also, no doubt, what the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and others mean by ‘bodily integrity’. No wonder disabled organisations fear this Mengelean concept of life.

The debate has already had repercussions. A number of so-called ‘Angels of Death’ – nurses who murder patients in their care – have already taken the cheapening of life at its word. Lucy de Berk, a Dutch nurse who admitted killing 13 patients, recorded in her diary that she hoped she was helping them. Roger Andermatt, a Swiss nurse who admitted 27 killings, told police he acted out of sympathy with the patients’ suffering.

In the UK, nurse Barbara Salisbury crossed the line between ‘humane nursing and callous dispatch’ when she gave a 76-year-old man an excess of diamorphine, telling him as she did so: ‘Give in. It’s time to go.’ This line, thanks to the efforts of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and others, is increasingly blurred.

What is needed – in sport and in life – are those who inspire others with their effort, with their ability to keep going in spite of immense and profound difficulties. Surely the term ‘dignity’ belongs to those who finish the race.

Those who are suffering under extreme difficulty of disease or depression are most sold short by the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. By giving them the option of death, we are essentially giving up on them. In response to the immense problems they face, we tell them to ‘F*** off and die’.

As Alison Davis, a spina bifida, emphysema and osteoporosis sufferer who runs Enable (4), a charity for disabled Indian children, writes in a moving and inspiring article, ‘what people like me really need is help and support to live with dignity until we die naturally’ (5).

(1) Sharing Paula’s pain, by Paula Radcliffe

(2) Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill

(3) See Justice4Diane

(4) See the Enable website

(5) Living with dignity, Observer, 10 November 2002

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Topics Politics

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