Joffe Bill on assisted suicide, currently in the Lords
Every day, in NHS wards, the merciful doctors use such quantities of morphine to ease the pain of their patients that their respiration is suppressed
But I think it might be better than seeing increasing numbers of British people forced to take their lives in a foreign country
Assisted suicide is problematic, but better than months of agony
I don’t know if you caught the interview with retired doctor Anne Turner, 66, on the eve of her assisted suicide, but in a way it was one of the most horrifying pieces of television I have seen: the long discussions with her grown-up children; the flight to Zurich; the rendezvous at the headquarters of Dignitas. And then the camera just dwelt on that doorbell, and that anonymous Swiss block of flats, and the viewer was left to meditate on the enormity of what we were seeing.
Through that door, into that lift, had walked a sentient human being, and somewhere on the premises, and in complete conformity with Swiss law, her life was taken away. We marvelled at her composure, her determination and her dignity. I thought her children were stunning in their bravery, their reasonableness and the obvious love they had for their mother.
But it was when she was still in England that the BBC man asked the question we were all willing him to put. Dr Turner could walk, talk, have a meal. In her final hours with her family, she was still able to sing songs and to have a laugh. “With respect,” said the BBC man leaning forward, “you don’t look as though you are dying. Why are you doing this?”
And then Dr Turner explained her condition, and the fact of her inevitable and speedy decline, and her bitter experience of seeing her late husband suffer an almost identical degeneration, and her desire to end it while she was still capable of voluntary action; and I expect I am not alone in having risen from the sofa completely wrung out, and in a state of deep confusion.
For me, the frightening bit about assisted suicide is, of course, the possibility that I might change my mind. I see myself sitting in the pizza parlour for that final family meal, surrounded by the beaming faces of my many descendants, their expressions contorted into a finely judged blend of agony and supportiveness.
I see us all holding hands and singing songs and telling old family jokes; and then I become aware of this nagging voice at the back of my head, and the voice cuts through the pain and the despair and says, “I say, hang on a second. Am I really sure about this death option? What about life? Why don’t we give that a go – just for another day, hmmm?” But then I look again round the faces that have spent so long coming to terms with my decision or trying to talk me out of it; and I think: can I really back out now? Won’t they be irritated?
I am about to blurt out that I want to live, when I bite the words back, and reflect that any such decision would be a terrific bother, and probably pointless, in the sense that I would soon just change my mind again, and they would have to go to all the expense of finding the doctors and the solicitors and another dose of hemlock, and re-book their flights, so I might as well get on with it.
But then I look around at their tear-rimmed eyes and, just as I am about to say, actually, you know, on the whole, can we take a rain-check on this suicide business, someone starts making a speech of thanks for my life and many Daily Telegraph articles, and somehow I miss my moment.
I don’t want to be a burden, I decide; and there, surely, is the big risk in expanding assisted suicide, in the way of the Swiss. Not only are we living longer and longer: the sad fact is that a greater proportion of our last years are spent in discomfort and disease, and the cost of the medical interventions we require rises exponentially as we reach the end.
It is certainly possible to imagine that, if assisted suicide were legal in this country, then old, confused and pain-racked people could start protesting that they “didn’t want to be a burden”, and their exhausted and demoralised relatives could indeed begin to persuade themselves that this was the best solution.
That is the reason why many people will oppose the Joffe Bill on assisted suicide, currently in the Lords. I completely understand their reasons; and yet we should also be clear what we are saying to people such as Dr Turner, and the doctors who might be tempted to help them out of their misery.
Sorry, we say: you are physically incapable of taking your own life (an action decriminalised in this country in 1961), and therefore we must sentence you to whatever physical and mental tortures your mortal biology may send you, for the term of your natural life. If necessary, you must go on and on in unbearable pain, and any doctor who helps you to die will be liable to 14 years in prison.
That is what our law prescribes, and of course it is already held in systematic contempt. Anyone who has seen a relative die of cancer will know that doctors routinely advance death by days or even (who knows) weeks.
Every day, in NHS wards, the merciful doctors use such quantities of morphine to ease the pain of their patients that their respiration is suppressed, and quite right, too. No one would dream of depriving people of this final palliation of their suffering; but we should be in no doubt about what is happening. The doctors are taking an action that leads to the patient’s death. To put it bluntly, they are killing them.
What is the difference between that and assisted suicide? Only that assisted suicide takes place earlier, and with the patient’s consent. The closer I study Lord Joffe’s Bill, the more inclined I am to think it reasonable. It is full of restrictions – notably that death must be only a few months away at most; and all sorts of attestations are demanded from doctors and solicitors.
I can see all the disadvantages, and if the law were to be changed, then it would need careful review, to make sure that people were not coming under any pressure whatever to take their lives. But I think it might be better than seeing increasing numbers of British people forced to take their lives in a foreign country.