Right to die: It's hard to support potential inconvenience as a reason to seek death

We must respect Jeffrey Spector's decision to end his life at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich last week, even if we don't applaud it

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I don’t know when the picture was taken, but the black-and-white photograph of Jeffrey Spector, his wife Elaine, and their three daughters, all wearing white, all with beaming smiles, is an artfully and professionally composed family snap.

Mr Spector is in the middle of the group, holding hands with two of his daughters, his wife and his other daughter linking arms with him. The bespectacled Mr Spector looks rather frail, so we can only assume it was taken towards the end of a life whose resolution arrived at the end of last week when he was assisted to die in a clinic in Switzerland.

There is a touching joyfulness about the photograph, and the smiles appear natural, not forced at all. The body language could be interpreted as that of a family holding on to him, trying not to let him go, but I prefer to think of it as a show of support from Mr Spector’s nearest and dearest.

Diagnosed with an inoperable tumour on his spine six years ago after complaining of back and neck pains, he had subjected himself to a course of treatment but the tumour kept on growing. Worried about the inevitability of ending up paralysed and being a drain on his family’s energies and resources, Mr Spector made a decision which inevitably led him to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich.

Since Dignitas was founded in 1998, 273 Britons have been helped to die a peaceful death on their own terms. We know nothing of the vast majority of these cases. The reason Mr Spector attracted publicity is that, at 54 years old, he was relatively young to take such a step, and outwardly at least he appeared a fully-functioning human being. He made his decision before his situation became hopeless.

We must respect that decision, even if we don’t applaud it. The photograph of him, sitting down to dinner with friends and family the night before he died, the very picture of cheerful mundanity, is haunting in the extreme.

Everyone knew this was his last supper. What did they talk about over the pasta and red wine? Wasn’t the pain of this occasion too much for his intimates to bear? How could he put his daughters through such a heart-breaking ordeal? I can understand why even those who support the right to self-determination as far as life and death is concerned might have found this display unsettling.

“I am a proud person,” he said in his final interview. “A dignified person, independent and self-motivated. I believe in my human right to dignity.” No one would dispute this, but I wonder whether Mr Spector has done the campaign to make assisted dying legal in Britain a disservice.

I’m not sure only God can play God, but, amid the various nuances, judgement calls and philosophical, ethical and religious questions which attend this subject, it’s hard to support potential inconvenience (which seems to be Mr Spector’s argument) as a just cause for a fatal dose of barbiturates.

I can see that it is almost impossible for a government to come up with strict legal guidelines for the right to die, but the truth is that we treat our cats and dogs with much more dignity, allowing them to reach an end without suffering.

Surely it’s not beyond the wit of government and the medical establishment to find a way to do the same for our human beings.