When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

It's my life, not God's

In today's Observer, Catherine Bennett wrote about Debbie Purdy, an MS sufferer who'd like to be able to die at a time she chooses but will need help to do so. She doesn't want her husband to be prosecuted for helping her, which could happen, as the law stands.

Mrs Purdy isn't the first to have fought this battle. Diane Pretty is just one high profile case. She died in May 2002, having lost a legal challenge that would have allowed her husband Brian to help her commit suicide when she deteriorated. She had Motor Neurone Disease, which can result in asphyxia. Her husband is quoted as saying,
"They had trouble getting her comfortable and pain-free until Thursday evening, after which she started to slip into a coma-like state and eventually died.

"Diane had to go through the one thing she had foreseen and was afraid of - and there was nothing I could do to help."
Dignity in Dying (formerly known as the Vountary Euthanasia Society) reports,
  • The 1996 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 82% of the public believe people suffering from painful, incurable diseases should have the right to ask their doctors for help to die. Every opinion poll since then has produced similar results.
  • Support for medically assisted dying is just as high amongst religious people and disabled and elderly people. This is despite the fact that some organisations representing these groups have campaigned against the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.
As Bennett wrote, every time the issue is raised, men and women of faith proclaim the sanctity of life, tell us that God wouldn't like it, and raise the spectre of unscrupulous relatives and nasty nursing home staff killing off the elderly and disabled as they please. People can't be trusted to stick to the "voluntary" part of voluntary euthanasia, they say; it'll just be a convenient way to get rid of troublesome invalids. If they banned God from the debating chamber, they might make more sense.

Painless palliative care isn't all it's claimed to be, mainly by those in the hospice movement, which is dominated by the religious - all the hospices around here are named after saints. And even if it was, shouldn't we be able to say goodbye when we'd like to, rather than waste away without the control of our bodily functions? We nursed my dad at home when he was dying. He was riddled with cancer that had started in his stomach. No one mentioned death in our house, let alone euthanasia. He and my mum were not inclined to talk about it. He had a syringe driver attached to his arm, full of Morphine, so he could self-medicate when the pain got bad. When he was too ill to use it, he had to have frequent injections. The toxins flowing around his body from the drugs and his enlarged, diseased liver, made him delusional. He was twitchy and agitated. While he could still find the strength to get out of bed, he somehow managed to find his way downstairs and into the street, looking for someone to "take me home", while mum slept in the next room. After that, she was never left alone with him. When he no longer had the strength to get up, he lay in bed with his fingers clawing at the bedclothes, mumbling about the nightmares he was having. One day, I called the doctor to ask him to come and sedate Dad. While Mum and my sister were downstairs, the doctor stood with a syringe full of Valium and said, "You know what might happen if I give him all of this on top of the Morphine, don't you?" "Yes," I said, "go ahead." Dad's breathing grew more shallow and we thought that was it, but the stubborn old bugger didn't die for another fortnight. No, I didn't ask the doctor to kill him, but we both knew that he might die. If it has been me in that bed, in that state, I'd have wanted to die. Dad was locked in a nightmare, and couldn't wake up.

I've lost count of the number of times that I've had to take a sick animal to the vet for euthanasia. The most recent time was when Wizzy collapsed one Sunday at the end of July, and was clearly in distress. She was seventeen and probably had an undiagnosed tumour that caused a sudden bleed. By the time a syringe had been emptied into a vein, she was already on the way out. The body goes limp; the breathing stops; the heart slows and stops. That's what I want, if I'm in pain or severe distress and there's no hope of recovery. How dare anyone tell me that his or her God says it's wrong!