Monday, January 27, 2014
We can smoke ourselves into an oncology ward and drink until our yellow liver holds up the white flag but we can’t decide to end a life of pain without a tussle in the courtroom – it’s a sad state of affairs when we treat our suffering pets better than we treat our fellow humans.
Last Monday, after a heart-wrenching storyline on Coronation Street, Hayley – brilliantly played by Julie Hesmondhalgh – decided to pip her terminal cancer at the post by taking a cocktail of drugs, ending her life before it could.
Predictably, there was an outcry from the religious right who fight with fire and brimstone when it comes to taking decisions out of their God’s hands. People would copy Hayley, they said, and life is sacred regardless of piffling notions such as agony, despair and hopelessness.
Assisted suicide or euthanasia has always been fraught with potential pitfalls.
Critics argue that a change in the law to allow the practice in the UK would encourage hordes of ruthless relatives to bump off dear old Gran as soon as she became a burden or provide an unwanted death sentence to those unable to articulate their burning desire to live.
They wheel out gracious disabled people eager to spread their Pollyanna-style zeal for life – good for them, I say – some people may be happy to cling to life regardless of pain, immobility, helplessness and the lack of dignity that their life may involve, and their wishes should be observed.
Others feel that the taking of life before the expiry date on the packet is the ultimate sin regardless of circumstance and that suffering should never outweigh the desire to live.
But the point is that for many – probably most – of us, merely surviving is no substitute for really living.
Imagine being confined to a hospital bed, unable to breathe without a ventilator, unable to swallow, to move, to speak normally; watching as others carry out dignity-stripping acts of intimate care on the body you once looked after so proudly.
You haven’t left your bed in years.
The chance of your condition improving even slightly would involve a miracle. Most importantly, you have decided that you no longer want to live this life, that you would rather regain the control you’ve lost and stick a hearty two fingers up at the Grim Reaper.
For all our politically-correct bleating about equal rights for the disabled, there is still one area where we like to apply an able-bodied strongarm.
Bless the disabled with their quaint ideas about controlling their own destiny, we think, but we can’t really allow them to make such big, grown-up decisions.
We’ll decide for them, preferably after a drawn-out, stressful court procedure held under the media glare.
I could kit myself out with a DIY suicide kit that would see me shuffle off this mortal coil without any busybody muscling in and spouting nonsense about the pearly gates clanging shut the second I wend my weary way towards heaven.
In short, I could top myself with the greatest of ease and you’d only notice next Monday when I was replaced by a news story about the bus station or the Northern Distributor Road.
Gravely ill people, like Tony Nicklinson who had a catastrophic stroke which left his body paralysed but his intellect undimmed and who unsuccessfully challenged the law on assisted suicide in the High Court yet had to resort to the undignified method of refusing food in order to die, are not afforded the same opportunities. They must rely on others to help them and in doing so they are asking their saviour to put themselves in peril.
A decent, caring doctor with the well-being of their patient foremost in their mind who assists a pain-free and dignified death can be charged with murder.
A partner or parent who has nursed their loved one for years and has borne witness to their unbearable suffering can end up in the dock for helping them end a tortured, hellish existence.
No one, least of all the drum-banging anti-euthanasia brigade, can quantify when life becomes no longer worth living – that decision is intensely and necessarily private.
If I ever find myself in the position where life is too painful, I can only hope that sense will have prevailed, the law will have changed and I will be granted a dignified, controlled death at a time of my choosing without condemning a relative, friend or sympathetic doctor to an investigation.
I’m happy for those who object on religious or ethical grounds to suffer as much as they like – it’s someone else’s God, not mine, and if the chips are down, I want to be the one calling the shots.