Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: It must be right to let people decide if they want to die

Those who assist in circumstances like Daniel James's cannot be criminals

Monday 20 October 2008 00:00

Daniel James, nicknamed "Cowboy" by his mates, was ruggedly masculine, full of plans and only 23. He should not have died in the prime of life. Nobody could feel that more deeply than his parents, Julie and Mark, who outlive their boy and have to endure the pain of that loss until the end of their time on earth. How they must wish Daniel had never played rugby, hadn't been in that training session in which a scrum of players collapsed on him, dislocating his spine causing instant and total paralysis.

Cruel fate struck and took away everything but humiliation, agony and unremitting dependency. It was purgatory, and Daniel chose, with his own sound mind, to make his exit from that state. The family went to the Swiss clinic, Dignitas, and there, with his mum and dad in the serene room, he drank the fatal liquid. Their inestimable love and sorrow had to bear witness. Imagine that if you can.

Now these parents may face prosecution, for such acts of selfless love are illegal in our country. Imagine that too, if you can bear to. If the law takes its course, they will have punishment piled on to indescribable grief.

And as if this isn't enough already, Julie and Mark James become objects of public scrutiny and babble and subjects of fast and loose comment. The despicable term "suicide tourism" has surfaced, and I even heard some idiot on radio saying these were "privileged" people who had the money to do what they wanted.

I am with that sage Mary Warnock, who says: "We must try yet again to change the law, not by excluding from criminality those who assist death by taking suicide abroad but by liberalising the laws of our own country ... we have a moral obligation take other people's seriously reached decisions with regard to their own lives equally seriously, not putting our own judgement of the value of their life above theirs."

It was Daniel's right to decide. The fact that many others, just like him, can put up with sudden, extreme disability is not the point. We were all born different, and death too has its own meanings and fears for each one of us. Some who choose to die before an incurable illness decides the timing for them are simply taking control; others want to go before they are too old and infirm. And then there are individuals like Daniel who hate the state they're in and wish to let go. Maybe medical advances would have come along to make things better – that is what Christopher Reeve hoped for until the day he died. Daniel didn't wish to wait.

Which is not to say that we should become casual about suicide. Change in the law must ensure that proper safeguards are in place to prevent assisted suicides becoming a convenience for those who would gain from the deaths. There has got to be a national conversation on the profound cultural impact of legalised euthanasia. People who guard our ethical standards must be listened to before any law is drafted.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, in her book The Moral State We're In, provides a comprehensive and thoughtful set of reasons to be watchful. We could, all too easily, slide into a world where some people, young and old, define themselves as useless and dispensable and get feel it is their responsibility to get out of the way.

I have always said that I will do away with myself when I feel too old and unable to take care of myself. Maybe when the time came I wouldn't, but that is what I think today. The idea of a prolonged existence with diminished faculties and furious frustration is unbearable. That the state and other do-gooders would be in charge of me even more so. I want that power, and don't ever want to be a burden on my kids.

But what of them, then? Is that not a terrible kind of revenge? I feel guilty everyday for not doing all that I should have done for my mum as she got old and helpless. If I did eventually decide to opt for a planned exit, how much more guilt I would bestow on my son and daughter?

The hospital soap Holby City has had a storyline on an assisted suicide and the suffering of those left behind. The lovely wife of one of the surgeons opts for self-determined death because she is suffering from a terminal degenerative condition. The husband, distraught, eventually agrees and the deed is done. The impact on him and the children is ongoing, horrendous. The son seems to be following his mother through compulsive hard drug addiction; the doctor knows he did the right thing, and yet cannot forgive himself.

Daniel's parents will suffer similar, never-ending emotional turmoil. They deserve unconditional compassion. Persecuting them would be a crime against their humanity.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in