Dilemmas: True friendship and the right to die

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was the irritable phrase 'Answer the question]' that sprang to my lips when reviewing readers' answers to last week's dilemma. Patricia had written in asking how far she could morally go in helping to end the life of a 75-year-old terminally ill friend. Rapidly going blind, in considerable pain, and given only a short time to live, the elderly cancer patient had made it clear she did not want to go into a hospice and wished to terminate her own life while she still her had wits about her.

And what did most readers recommend? Unable to bear to address the real dilemma, they preferred to dodge the whole issue and send Patricia's friend off to the last place she wanted to go. In other words: get thee to a hospice. It wasn't as bad as she thought, they said. There she would find tender loving care, smiling nurses, cheerful curtains, pain relief and bunches of flowers.

Not only are there are only 3,000 hospice beds available, so they are not always an option, but more to the point, a hospice is not where Patricia's friend wanted to go. Certainly I would far prefer to die in the familiarity, idiosyncracity and squalor of my own home.

One of the many hospice fans, Gordon Buchan of Aberdeen, wrote: 'If Patricia really cares about her ill friend then she will do all in her power to make the last few months as bearable and as pleasant as possible.' Of course. But the dilemma was that the only way to make this woman's life as 'bearable and pleasant as possible' was to give her control over it.

True, some, like Bob Torrens of Bristol, a hospital chaplain, pointed out that the hospice movement might help by sending a carer to visit Patricia's friend daily in her home. And Jean Cass of Swindon suggested contacting the Macmillan nurses, who are also available for caring for patients at home. Elizabeth Carter of King's Lynn recommended Cancerlink, on 071-833 2451, set up to help patients and carers alike.

But some fiercely individual people have no desire to be dependent on friendly but strange nurses, however kind and dedicated they are. And anyway, was not the real moral issue about how far Patricia should go in helping a friend to die? Only a few people had the guts to give positive advice.

Shirley, of Helmlsey, Yorkshire, wrote: 'I was in a very similar situation and my reaction was one of fury. I refused to help my friend in any way, and I could practically feel the relief she felt when I told her. She had only suggested killing herself because she felt she was being a nuisance to other people, not because she really wanted to die. And anyway, how could I, a loving friend, aid my friend's death?' And Marjorie E Currall of Brighton pointed out that the old lady was being 'less than kind in asking her young friend to involve herself in this quest for easy ways to die'.

But who else could she ask? A complete stranger would almost certainly refuse to help. Alan Spores of Guildford faced the problem head- on. 'The question that should be asked is: How, morally, can I avoid helping a person I love to die?' he wrote. 'Passively permitting preventable suffering is only a matter of degree better than actually causing preventable suffering.'

P H Carey of north London wrote: 'If she has been directly asked, it would be immoral not to help in every possible way short of doing the mercy killing herself. Had I been asked by my father-in-law, my father or my wife's favourite uncle, who died of heart disease, diabetes and cancer respectively, I would have had absolutely no hesitation in assisting them to an easier death.'

Similarly, an anonymous reader wrote: 'How far should you go? As far as you dare, then a little further. Then mourn your friend with pride - you did not let her down when she needed you most.'

John Oliver, general secretary of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (13 Prince of Wales Terrace, London W8 5PG), pointed out the peculiarities of the law. For instance, were Patricia to buy for her friend a copy of the book Final Exit by Derek Humphry, a best-seller available at high-street bookshops, and give it to her in the knowledge that her friend would use the information to kill herself, then, if it could be proved, she could be charged under Section 2 of the Suicide Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment. But it would be quite legal for her to buy a copy and give it to her friend if she didn't know what it would be used for.

'Because of the existing situation some people take the law into their own hands - either mercy killing or aiding and abetting suicide,' he said. 'Hospices are absolutely wonderful but not a cure-all. There are many cases of intractable pain and people suffering from illnesses with conditions that simply cannot be eased. Suggesting a hospital is a knee-jerk reaction to stop facing the true facts. It's worth remembering that the most recent opinion poll showed that 79 per cent of people would support a change in the law. What we are concerned about is choice at the end of life.'

People admire the Roman soldiers who fell on their swords rather than face disgrace; they applaud the plucky chap on the First World War battlefield brave enough, when asked, to put a bullet through the head of his mortally wounded comrade.

But when an elderly woman wanted to behave like a soldier, readers backed off. Very few felt comfortable in allowing Patricia's friend control over her life. It was all: 'There, there, dear, you're a sick old lady. Don't do anything silly. The kind nurses will care for you.' Was there an element of ageism and sexism creeping in, I wondered?

I believe Patricia must help, but only in areas where her friend is incapable of taking action. Better to buy the friend a magnifiying glass than read the euthanasia instructions out herself. To get too involved would be taking control away from the elderly person; the act of a true friend would be to give her the power to do exactly as she wants. And if that means taking her life, so be it.

P S: Remember Alex, the man who was being bullied at work, whose friend wrote in to ask advice on his behalf? The friend has written in to thank all the readers who offered advice. Alex is thinking of taking a martial arts class, as recommended, but most helpful of all was 'the realisation that he's not alone. I think he felt that there was something wrong with him and not with the mindless idiots who have been tormenting him.'

Dear Virginia,

Our daughter of 16 is at a pounds 10,000-a-year boarding school where they've taken girls in the sixth form for some years. She shares a room with a girl who smokes, drinks and has boys in her bed, all of which are forbidden by the school.

Although our daughter isn't particularly upset by any of these antics, should we as parents inform the school about what is going on? Or do they know and turn a blind eye? We don't want our daughter to be thought a tell-tale and end up ostracised by classmates, but on the other hand we feel it is not very nice for her to be put in a situation where she has to cover up for something she doesn't really like or approve of, or wish to be witness to.

Our daughter is the eldest of a mixed family and has previously attended a local comprehensive, while this girl is from an all-girls school. The boys in question are prefects and have total power and freedom within the school and are not checked up on in any way by the staff. What should we do?

Yours sincerely, Christopher

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