Right to die: There were times when I would have ended my life if it were legal – coming out the other side I'm glad it wasn't

Christopher Jones died of terminal cancer in 2012, but shortly before his death he penned first-hand a reflection on the assisted dying debate. We print it here in full

In discussing the pros and cons of relaxing the law to allow assisted suicide, we frequently allude to hypothetical examples. I thought it might help if I were to offer an example from life which is not hypothetical but actual.

In October 2009 I was diagnosed with cancer of the colon and had an operation to remove half of my large intestine. This was followed by six months of adjuvant chemotherapy to eliminate cancer from my lymphatic system and to prevent it from spreading further. In September 2010, following scans and flexible sigmoidoscopy, I was declared free from cancer. The huge sense of relief which this brought lasted only two months, because high antigen readings from blood tests prompted a further set of scans in November 2010, which revealed the presence of three active secondary growths in my liver. This was a major shock which left me feeling disorientated and depressed.

I worked through a wealth of emotions – anxiety, despair, anger, self-pity and so on – in  coming to terms with this new diagnosis, which was much more immediately life-threatening than the (primary) colonic cancer. Over about three months I recovered a sense of equilibrium and adjusted to the new situation. The prescribed treatment this time was pre-operative chemotherapy, designed to shrink the liver tumours, followed by liver surgery. From December 2010 to March 2011, the chemotherapy made me feel exhausted, dehydrated as a result of chronic diarrhoea, and unwell for long periods. In May 2011 the second operation took place.

Unfortunately, the operation revealed not three tumours in my liver, but nine. The removal of the tumours was therefore impossible without rendering the liver unworkable. Several weeks of tentative discussion with consultants followed. The option of a portal vein embolisation to “grow” extra liver tissue artificially was proposed, and then discarded. Eventually, in June 2011, I was told that I would be put back on chemotherapy. This seemed to me to be an admission that other therapies were not viable, so I asked whether the chemotherapy would offer any hope of a cure. The answer was that because of the aggressiveness of the cancer, a cure was highly improbable, and the chemotherapy was palliative, designed to slow down the spread of the cancer and to give me as much extra time as possible in the circumstances.

Since then I have been living in the shadow of this prognosis, but the chemotherapy has reinforced my energy and vitality beyond anything I could have expected, and I am enjoying life in this period of 'remission'.

My reflection on this experience centres on the fact that at three periods – the diagnosis of secondary cancer, the traumatic experience of chemotherapy, and the prognosis of incurability – I was subject to extreme stress and a sense of hopelessness, and I might have been open to the option of ending my life by legal means, had these existed. The legal prohibition of this course was immensely helpful in removing it as a live option, thus constraining me to respond to my situation more creatively and hopefully. In hindsight, I now know that had I taken this course, I would have been denied the unexpected and joyful experience of being 'recalled to life' as I now am.

This is not simply a subjective plea from personal experience. The first substantive argument concerns the effect of law on medical practice. As well as prescribing sanctions when offences are committed, laws have directive and preventative effects. By setting boundaries, they help to maintain an environment of healthy ethics, good practice and positive expectations. A nakedly individualist account of decisions about the ending of life neglects or under-estimates this context. In the light of my experience, it is of prime importance that the law should signal the priority of the preservation of life – not at all costs but as the default option which requires adequate reasons to be overridden.

The second substantive argument concerns the personal and clinical context of decision-making. A life-threatening or terminal illness is a process with many imponderable and unpredictable elements. There is great danger in attaching decisive significance to a person’s judgment at a particular stage in the process that their life is no longer worth living and ought to be ended, as both the situation and their feelings about it may change drastically in a relatively short period of time. Again, this is not to say that life must be preserved at all costs, but to adapt the language of the Marriage Service on the Book of Common Prayer, nothing should be decided “lightly, wantonly or unadvisedly”.

In summary, my experience has reinforced my conviction that the law prohibiting assisted suicide is an essential bulwark against well-meaning but unwarranted judgments about the value of life and the desirability of ending it in order to minimise or eliminate suffering. In my view, suffering is inescapable in this situation, and ought not to be allowed to trump all other considerations, especially when palliative care is taken into account. I do not claim that my experience trumps all other experience of end-of-life decisions, but it introduces significant considerations which are not usually acknowledged by supporters of a change in the law.

It is often objected that judgments of this kind are patronising, because they are made over the heads of actual patients facing terminal illness, or lacking compassion in that they prioritise one person’s moral principles over the suffering of another. In this case, I am the patient, and while I may be wrong in my conclusions, neither of these objections to my argument can be sustained.

Christopher Jones wrote this reflection on 30th November 2011, less than six months before his death, aged 58, from terminal cancer. Christopher spent eight years as Home Affairs policy adviser for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, a position held until his death on 9th May 2012. Widely respected across the Church, Christopher was Chaplain and Tutor in Doctrine at Cranmer Hall Durham from 1987 to 1993; and Chaplain and Fellow of St Peter’s College Oxford from 1993 to 2004.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced Mechanic / Plant Fitter

    £24000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Lancashire based engineeri...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Advisor

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Advisor

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders