When my mother was 14, her own mother, suffering painfully from breast cancer, begged her to pass her a bottle of painkillers so that she could end her life. It was an appalling position for a young teenager to be in, as well as a mark of my grandmother’s desperation.
I don’t doubt that care for breast cancer has been revolutionised in the decades since those days, but the experience had a profound effect on my Mum, who became a lifelong ardent supporter of the right of someone with a terminal or crippling illness to end their life at a time of their choosing.
It was therefore a hideously cruel irony that 60 years later, my Mum herself developed a progressive degenerative disease and yet still, after so much time, nothing had been done to give people in that position the reassurance that they would have a degree of influence over when and how to end their suffering.
Intelligent and modest, my Mum endured her disease with stoicism, but her final few months were undignified and – to be brutal – physically miserable. She didn’t once suggest to us that we help her end her life, which – I’m confident – was out of consideration for us. She didn’t want us to be in the same position she was in as a teenage girl.
But not everyone with a terminal or quality of life-limiting condition will have the same view, considerations or relationships. Everyone’s health, outlook and family is unique, and they deserve to have the option of choosing a dignified end to their life.
Baroness Meacher’s private members’ bill on assisted dying, which will receive its second reading in parliament on Friday, would legalise assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in the last six months of life. This is a step supported by 73 per cent of people, according to a YouGov opinion poll.
Society’s double standard of allowing sick animals to be put out of their misery when their suffering is too great is often cited, and it’s an argument that should certainly be noted. According to campaign group Dignity in Dying, every 8 days a British person travels to Dignitas in Switzerland for help to die. People are dying younger than they otherwise would at home because of the UK’s absence of an assisted dying law.
For me, the option of having that control is personal. I chose not to have children, so I imagine that if one day I develop a disease like my Mum’s, it will be down to a care worker to help me with the everyday tasks of survival. That’s not what I want, and almost certainly I will not have the degree of care our family gave my Mum. I have decided, therefore, that if assisted dying is still illegal in this country, I will have no option but to join the trail of those buying one way tickets to Dignitas.
Meanwhile, we continue to fail people whose suffering is intolerable. There have been a number of high-profile cases of people taking up legal battles for what should be a fundamental right: the right to freedom from suffering. These people didn’t choose to be case studies for the subject – it was forced on them. Painful and terminal diseases are indiscriminate; any one of us may develop them, and anyone who does deserves compassion.
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Opponents argue that assisted dying would be the start of a slippery slope, envisaging the frail, sick and vulnerable coming under pressure to end their lives unreasonably. But it’s a fallacy to claim that it’s impossible to frame legislation that would safeguard such people. Laws may be sophisticated and nuanced to such a degree that plans for an early death would be rigorously scrutinised by independent doctors.
Contrary to pious objections of “protect the vulnerable at all costs and give palliative care in extreme cases”, there will be no scenarios in which simply forcing granny to swallow the bottle of sleeping pills would be legalised.
I hope I never have to buy a ticket to Switzerland, not only because I hope to stay healthy, but also because I believe our laws can and will be improved. No one who has seen a loved one suffering a debilitating, prolonged, undignified death can truly oppose a humane change to the uncompassionate, inflexible black hole of misery to which the sick are currently condemned.
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