"I am all in favor of the skeptical mind. Do not believe anything unless you have experienced it. Do not believe anything - go on questioning, however long it takes." - Osho

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Why do we condemn assisted dying?

Assisted suicide, or "assisted dying", as it is sometimes called, is a topic which is regarded in our culture to be taboo- and at the very least, controversial.

To give a brief overview, assisted suicide is when someone, almost always with a terminal or progressive disease, is given help to die peacefully. This is usually done by drinking a very strong drug, which first puts you to sleep, and then kills you by cutting off oxygen supply, and then stopping your heart.

Currently, assisting someone to die is illegal in the United Kingdom, and those Brits who wish to choose when to die have to travel to Switzerland in order to do so. A clinic there, called Dignitas, is the only hope terminally ill people have of choosing how and when they die. Although it is not the only country in the world to offer assisted suicide legally, Switzerland is the only one which allows people from other countries to kill themselves.

Terry Pratchett, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, is an excellent fantasy author, but is also a campaigner for the legalisation of assisted suicide in the UK. Although not his first public statement of his stance on the issue, his documentary "Choosing to Die", aired last week on the BBC, was a very powerful and heartfelt look at the people affected by our country's laws.

It seems to me as though people whose lives are terribly, profoundly affected by terminal diseases should be allowed to choose when they die, peacefully, and with dignity, in their own country. I can understand the issues behind it- one would have to be absolutely sure that they were acting only upon their own wishes, and were of sound mind. However, I think that those who have made the decision to die should be allowed that privelege, and shouldn't have to travel abroad to get it. This only has a more damaging and stressful effect on their own families.

I also by no means think that everybody with a terminal or degenerative disease should be made to die, or even encouraged to do so. All other options should be examined and considered before making that ultimate choice. For me, the religious question doesn't even factor into it. How can any compassionate God condemn people for commiting suicide- or helping someone to do so- when they feel their lives are physically unlivable? Any such God would be one not worth worshipping, for me.

As far as I'm concerned? I don't think I could ever commit suicide, under any circumstances. I think I would always be waiting for a last-minute cure, right to the end. However, I have never been- and hope I never am- in a position where I need to make that decision. Neither have the law-makers in Britain; or other countries yet to legalise assisted dying. Therefore, I believe that such an option should be left open, without those who wish to die having to worry about whether their loved ones will be jailed when they are gone, or whether they will have to die in an unfamiliar place where they find little comfort in the surroundings.

I know it's controversial, and I know that there are compelling arguments on both sides. But how do you feel? Comment, to let me know.


  1. The issue is the compos mentis of the patient. Pratchett is making the decision when possessing his faculties.

    The way it works in Holland (where they offer it on their version of the NHS) is you have to request it from your doctor. He then has to get a second opinion of your condition from another doctor. You undergo a psychiatric evaluation to see if you understand what this means. Finally a tribunal of doctors decides whether to give the go ahead or not.

    Usually they give it for terminal conditions. If they don't give it, it's usually as the condition is not so bad as to take that step yet.

    Most "suicide" machines are automatic. They are set up and ask you a series of questions which you are encouraged to answer truthfully, to ease you into it. Dignitas bring the idea of hotel dying, where you die on your terms listening to what you want after doing what you want. Most people don't die in comfortable places but dignitas is the idea that you can die somewhere "fun".

    We cannot say if we could commit suicide like this or not. It's not something we wish to think about. I am 25, I feel it's an uncomfortable topic. I suspect I would feel the same as Pratchett should I be in his situation.

    It's not dying with dignity. It's living with dignity.

  2. Your last line sums it up completely. People should be allowed to decide on their own when they no longer feel as though they are living to the standard they think is necessary.

    Also, I love the little discussion you, Fin and Daniel are having on my facey-bee page :')

  3. Absolutely agree with the sentiment that we should be entitled to end our lives in the manner we wish; given that appropriate safeguards are in place to stop undue pressure being exerted on the terminally ill to do so.

    One thing struck me about the fallout to this documentary. Whilst articles tended to talk up a controversy here, the vast majority of comments underneath those articles (even including one in the Daily Mail) were supportive of it and of working towards legalized assisted dying.

    The few negative comments tended to come from crazies who had taken 'Brave New World' a little seriously (the coalition is setting us up to accept compulsory euthanasia)and from the strongly religious. In that light I'm not convinced that in the country as a whole this is all that controversial (although not the most systematic way to come to that conclusion I know)

    Hi by the way, I'm new to your blog thanks to PZ

  4. Exactly, just look at Craig Colby Ewert from "The Suicide Tourist", he had ALS and summed it up as "I have dying in one hand, and suffering and dying in the other. The decision is mine, and it's pretty simple for me." The only thing I do grant to the other side is the fact that if euthanasia were completely legal, it could lead to older people feeling some form of pressure to consider assisted suicide if their own health-costs are a burden to their families. It's a delicate subject, although I completely agree that if the reasons are well-argumented the decision should completely lie with the person itself.

  5. Excellent summary of the programme, and of the issues. For me it's all in the title of the documentary: Choosing to Die. No-one is saying this should be compulsory — it should be a matter of choice.

    My own blogpost about the programme was linked from the BBC, and as a result it's had many heartfelt comments — none opposing assisted dying.

  6. The excellent webcomic Jesus & Mo has an interesting comment on Christian objections to assisted dying:

  7. I know, it always confuses me why there has been such a wait for legislation about this to come through.

  8. Thank you for bringing this up.

    My father died two months ago.

    He had a brain tumor (glioblastoma stage 4 - not even the 'miracle' doctors say this can ever be treated). It grew on his left side, pressing right on his speech centre, so he has had difficulty speaking ever since last July when he suddenly developed seizures. The cancer was diagnosed in November, and although they knew it was aggressive, they didn't know how malignant it was until after brain surgery (a fuck up by the radiologist meant that he didn't look at the MRI until 6 weeks after it was done, by which time the tumor had doubled in size, and gone from nearly 100% operable, to only 80%). Even though they knew it was hopeless, they insisted on radiotherapy, which ended up doing nothing, if not worsen the condition. The next scan showed that the tumor had ignored all therapy and continued to grow at an increased rate. We were told to make my dad comfortable as he had only 50% chance to live past the next 6-8 weeks, and 25% to live another 6-8 weeks, etc. A few weeks after my birthday in February he probably had a stroke and he went into a coma-like state. The nurses said he had only hours to live at the time, so I rushed over (I live in Melbourne, my parents in Adelaide). Next morning he woke up and was 'fine' again, though paralyzed on his right side, so he was bed-ridden from then on. And so began 13 weeks of not knowing when the inevitable would happen. My father was ready to die from the beginning, he was happy with what he had achieved in life, and was not afraid of death - though the actual dying may be a different issue. During this time he could not speak (he was a university professor, whose life passion had been to communicate science, so this was frustrating) nor get up (he was a very independent person so this was torture); luckily he was never in major pain (though through life he almost never took pain killers, even when in obvious pain, so who knows how uncomfortable he really was). But we could not speed up the death that everyone knew was coming. We could not short this undignified period of subhuman life. Paliative care workers told us that as the end approaches, it's all very peaceful and they have no needs like thirst or hunger. Yet we knew that he was thirsty right up to the very end when his swallowing reflex gave out and everything went into the lungs; he was calm the whole time, but only because he had accepted the situation, not because it was 'peaceful' (personally I think palliative care workers shut out reality to avoid going crazy in their job). My mother and I had to watch as a bear of a man turned into a concentration camp victim as he tried to starve himself to death (which would not have been possible if he hadn't been at home, as the hospital will force you to eat intravenously even if you don't want to). I had to watch my mother lose the love of her life slowly. He was amazingly strong to survive that long, the nurses couldn't believe it. But it was an undignified unusable time alive for him.

    In those 13 painful weeks, I would have loved to be able to help him end the suffering - actually I would have loved for someone else to do it, as it should not be up to a loved one to have to pull the trigger and kill their parent, spouse, child, etc. Yet we are told that we need to let them die 'naturally' - all the while extending life in ways that were anything but 'natural' (I hear of people that have repeatedly pulled all catheters out of their body because they want it to end, only to have doctors stick them right back in).

    I love Terry Pratchett for his books and his campaign for euthanasia laws. I hope that Philip Nitschke here in Australia is right, and it's only a matter of time before euthanasia is legalised, and no more terminally ill people have to go through this kind of thing!

  9. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, and also I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your father. But I agree, it's for people like him and your family that steps need to be taken to legalise assisted dying. I have a great amount of respect for him for remaining calm through his ordeal, and for you for being willing to talk about your experience with the unfair and unethical laws that exist at the moment.

    Hopefully that is right. It's time that people are given the ability to die in a dignified way if they so choose.