Spaniard fights for rational end to `absurd' life

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The Independent Online
His gaze is clear and lively, his smile, despite the cigarette clamped between his teeth, warm and ironical. "It's an illusion of normality," said Ramon Sampedro, paralysed from the neck down for 28 years, "that conceals the reality that I am trapped in a dead body."

Mr Sampedro, 53, who spends his life at his parents' home in a village in Spain's remote north-west, has been getting about more in the last fortnight than in the last year, pursuing his campaign through the courts for the right to end a life he says is a torment.

The other day he was brought in a special vehicle to Galicia's regional capital, Santiago de Compostela, for a televised debate on euthanasia: "It seems like hell to be deprived of the use of your body for years and years, trying to lift yourself without ever being able to do so," he said. Since the provincial court of La Coruna agreed to reopen his case last week, another tetraplegic, Luis de Moya, a priest who works in Pamplona from a chin-driven wheelchair, has criticised him. "Life something about which we cannot decide. It's ridiculous to think you can kill someone just because they want it."

Mr Sampedro's demeanour is at cruel odds with the tragedy of his words: "People see my face but they don't see the rest. I'm wearing nappies, a tube through which I urinate; someone has to feed me ... As a rational person, I want a rational death. Mine is an absurd and meaningless life," he said.

Mr Sampedro, once a seaman, was crippled when dashed on rocks while swimming. He started his legal fight in 1993; in 1994 he appealed to the Constitutional Court, which dismissed his case on a technicality; the European Court of Human Rights said he had not exhausted the resources of the Spanish legal system.

Mr Sampedro taught himself to write with a pointer "to prevent myself from going mad" and contacted the Right to Die with Dignity organisation, which advises him. In March he published a book, Letters from Hell. Assisted deaths were recently permitted, but not formally legalised, in the Netherlands and in Oregon. In June the Northern Territory of Australia became the first place to legalise euthanasia.

The Santiago de Compostela debate in which Mr Sampedro took part had a live link with Pamplona, after which the presenter sought the opinion of a small invited audience of mainly elderly women, most of whom backed the priest. Mr Sampedro retorted that surveys since 1984 showed 70 per cent of Spaniards supported euthanasia and 20 per cent of doctors were ready to help if they were not penalised.

Later, as I lit him a cigarette, he explained why he could not share the priest's view: "It's alright for someone who feels protected and guided by their religion, but ...I'm an agnostic. I'm a sailor, I love liberty and what I want is a welcoming haven after death, a refuge less arid than this life, which for me is only suffering."

He gave a sweet smile as he was wheeled back to his vehicle and said: "I can feel on my face. Give me a kiss." So I did.