Most of you will be aware of the Ecclesiastes reading often chosen at funerals: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. One of the big questions in this is do we have we a right to choose a time to die if we become terminally ill and seek to do so by means of voluntary euthanasia, otherwise known as ‘assisted suicide’?
The concept of euthanasia has been around since the 17th century when medicine first looked at ways at alleviating pain and suffering through death in the elderly ill. Religion has always opposed euthanasia with the Catholic Church declaring it a serious mortal sin. The author Martin Amis caused controversy when he called for euthanasia ‘booths’ to be placed on all street corners where elderly people could end their lives with ‘’a martini and a medal’’. His comments were considered deeply offensive by anti-euthanasia supporters but Amis hit back by stating there are over 700,000 people with dementia living in the UK and his experience of seeing people he loved and admired with the illness had taught him there are no reasons for prolonging life once the mind and dignity goes.
It is only in the last fifteen years that assisted suicide became legal in Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and some USA states. The only Catholic country to legalalise it is Colombia. Two previous attempts to legalize in the UK were rejected but a Bill is currently before the Scottish Parliament to permit it.
Most people have heard of Dignitas, an assisted suicide Swiss organisation set up in 1998 that has so far helped over a thousand people with terminal cancer, motor neuron disease and multiple scorlesis by means of lethal overdoses of Nembutal resulting in a painless death within minutes. The cost is £4,000 and over a hundred people from Britain and Ireland have so far travelled to Dignitas clinics in Switzerland. An interesting statistics from Dignitas states that 20% of their clients do not have a terminal illness, but choose to end their lives because of a debilitating disability or a general ‘weariness of life’.
Daniel James, 23, became the youngest Briton to die at the Dignitas clinic after travelling to Zurich with his parents. He was paralysed from the chest down after a major spine injury incurred whilst playing rugby. David couldn’t walk, had no hand function and had constant pain in his fingers, was incontinent and suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body, thus needing 24-hour care. He considered his life had become ‘’a second-class existence’’. It is hard to judge someone like David because most people will never have to endure pain and suffering on this scale in their lives. Besides, he might have made his peace with God before making the decision to travel to Switzerland, and God, or at least the God I believe in, was probably incredibly loving and understanding in return.
The hardest aspect of assisted suicide that I find difficult to understand is when I see pictures in the media of people who have died at a Dignitas clinic ‘enjoying’ a final meal before their death with close family members. I would find this incredibly hard to do and if I’m honest I would probably do my best to talk the family member or friend from not going ahead with it, based simply on the premise that I would find it heart-wrenchingly hard to say goodbye to them. But from articles I have read, one family described their final hours and moments with their loved one as a ‘’beautiful and remarkable thing’’ before the death took place.
The Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors swearing to practice medicine ethically is changing in its direction. The sanctity of preserving life at all costs falls outside the remit of the oath when morphine is given in excessive doses to hasten death to patients in a lot of pain or sometimes because they are simply elderly with little chance of getting better. It happens in Irish hospitals far more often than we like to think. Undoubtedly, a broad debate into euthanasia needs to continue. We may one see it one day become legal in Ireland and England. I remember writing an essay on it when I did my Leaving Certificate in the early eighties condemning it strictly on religious grounds. England is in a progressive state of secularism and Ireland is following along in a similar pathway. That leaves me to wonder what students in the year 2040 will write about euthanasia in their copybooks. But for that only time will see.
Published in The Irish Community News magazine