Thursday, 13 March 2014

assisted suicide - some thoughts

the notion of assisted suicide has been in the news lately, and Tim Montomerie, currently of The Times (£) though not for much longer - what role will he play in next year's UK election, readers? - has written a column about it. He is against it. He thinks giving the State the power to kill people will drive "fleets of hearses" though medical ethics. I don't think the issue is so simple. To be fair to Montgomerie, he probably doesn't either, but that is what he writes. He writes also, alarmingly, of people in the Netherlands with early dementia being visited by "mobile euthanasia units". This has the whiff of an urban myth. Certainly on a quick Google around I couldn't identify anything credible that stood it up.

I ive in France, where, it appears, the health care, including palliative care, is the best in the world. In 2009 I accompanied (as the French say - a good word to use, I always think) a friend with terminal cancer in the last months of his life. He died alone, as everyone does, but in the hours before he went there were friends around him, and although he could not communicate with us he clearly had no pain. Measures had been put in place to ensure that he did not. Hospital staff assured us that in the developed world it was completely unnecessary for anyone to die in pain. I hope that is true. But it's not the whole story.

I saw a (French) film a year or two ago which affected me greatly. It was called "Quelques Heures de Printemps" ("A Few Hours of Spring") and it concerned a 70-something widow, luminously played by Helene Vincent, with a degenerative brain disease, unnamed, who had a troubled relationship with her 48-year-old  son, who had moved back to live with her after spending time in prison. It's not a spoiler, should you be minded to seek out the film, to note that a clinic in Switzerland is involved. Well, the woman in the film was compos mentis, though would not necessarily always be, and there was only one family member to consult, which might not always be the case. After watching it I drew the conclusion that in certain circumstances a clinic in Switzerland might be the answer for me, but that I would want to be the one making the decision, and to be capable of doing so. Life is not always so neat.

Attitudes change over the generations. My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer in the 1960s at age 71, and was never told his illness was terminal. He probably worked it out for himself, but was given no real opportunity to prepare for his end. My paternal grandmother, by contrast, died in 2002 of nothing in particular at the age of 96, having spent about three years in a care home before that. My mother often said of her in the last few years of her life "She's lived too long". But who is to be the judge of when a life should end?

When an MP I voted for a "Doctor Assisted Dying" bill, which did not become law. A colleague who was a doctor himself, and with whom I was on friendly terms, voted for it too. Several attempts have been made since to get such a bill on to the statute book, and all of them so far have failed. Mary Warnock, the political philosopher, is convinced euthanasia will be legal in the UK in due course. I am not so sure. Nor am I so sure how I would vote today on such a bill. Probably in favour. But I cannot be certain. This is not an issue for easy certainties.

What do you think?

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