If 'dying with dignity’ is legalised, soon it will be expected


Locutus
#1
In a society that views the old as a burden, Lord Falconer’s 'choice’ could mean none at all

Lord Falconer, who was lord chancellor under Tony Blair, will bring in a parliamentary Bill for Assisted Dying on July 18. All of us are dying, of course, and we need assistance in confronting that great fact; but that is not what Lord Falconer is talking about. He means assisting people to kill themselves, which is something else.

The use of language is important in this debate, and the pro-killing party is clever at it. “Choice” is favoured. Even more so is “dying with dignity”. Whoever thought of that phrase deserves – if euthanasia-supporters admit the concept – immortality. Who, after all, could want people not to die with dignity?

The BBC now uses the phrase, unchallenged, in its news coverage of the issue, as if “dying with dignity” were an accepted euphemism for suicide, like “passing away” for death itself. You have to stop a moment to remember that thousands of people die with dignity every day, not by their own hand, but by accepting the course of nature.

Wielding “dignity” so skilfully, Lord Falconer and his allies then hold before us the distressing individual examples who say they long to die, but cannot. There are people who suffer from “locked-in” syndrome, people who shut down through motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis, and so on. Such cases work well in media terms. They are genuinely painful human stories. Anyone who resists their apparent logic can seem hard-hearted.

Against this rhetoric, the opponents of euthanasia have phrases which can sound tired. They criticise doctors for wishing to “play God”. They speak, like anxious schoolteachers fussing about giving pupils more freedom, of a “slippery slope”. They can seem pedantic about definitions, indifferent to human reality.


Could there be a better way of looking at this issue? A thought previously lurking at the back of my mind swam to its front when I read a recent interview with Dr John Ashton, the president of the Faculty of Public Health. The Guardian got a front-page story out of its interview, that Dr Ashton supports assisted suicide. In an arresting phrase, he said that “we need an equivalent of a midwife at the end of life”.

But I was struck by something else. “The condition of adult males is of increasing concern,” Dr Ashton remarked, “because suicide has been going up in working-age men, especially the under-forties. There’s something in the dramatically changed position of men in society… that’s affecting men’s self-esteem and self-confidence… with the reduction in their traditional role as breadwinners.”

So Dr Ashton believes that when people feel worthless and unvalued by society, they are more likely to want to kill themselves. He thinks this is a bad thing. If that applies to men under 40, why would it not apply to sick people in old age? Does it not occur to him that these suicidal cries of despair from old people are not only because of the objective problems of their health, but because of how other people see and treat them?

As the son of parents now in their eighties, I see quite a lot of old age. I may also see a wider sample than most because, in writing my biography of Margaret Thatcher, I have interviewed perhaps 300 people who could be described as old.

My reports from the geriatric front are fundamentally optimistic. The life of the old has been elongated, and not, in most cases, pointlessly. It has added a new dimension to human experience. For the first time ever, millions of people live to see their grandchildren grow up. They can easily enjoy 20, sometimes even 30, years of activity after they stop working. They can look at life differently, learn new things, and contribute new things. Most families, charities, churches, communities, clubs feel the benefit of this. Many who are teenagers today will remember their relationships with their still-living grandparents as among the best in their young lives. Such experiences, once rarities, are now commonplace – thanks to better medicine, diet and general prosperity.

Of course one must not neglect the bad side – continuing pensioner poverty for many, loneliness, pressure on families, long years of illness for some and the unavoidable sadness when one’s powers fail. But I suggest the heretical thought that people today are often better prepared for death than in the past. They usually have more time to get ready.

The problem – and there certainly is one – lies in the failure of organised society to keep up with this huge change. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the least adaptable of all our major institutions, the National Health Service.

Every time you visit an old person in an NHS hospital, even in the better ones, you sense that the old are seen as being in the way. The aim is to process them, not to look after them. The idea that they are a special group with particular needs – like mothers and babies – seems hardly to have crossed the administrative mind.

The patience required for treating the old – the acceptance of slowness, the need for reassurance – does not seem to be taught, or prized. Why? Presumably because the relative imminence of death leads the authorities to think that there is no point in looking after them. This is a particular problem in our form of nationalised medicine, where money does not follow the patient: each extra oldie becomes a burden on the system.

If you are considered a burden by others, you sense it. Like Dr Ashton’s youngish men disheartened not to be the breadwinners, sick old people may well be overwhelmed by a sense of rejection, made worse by physical pain. The supporters of Lord Falconer’s Bill make much of the fact that those handed out the “only six months to live” sentence proposed by the Bill will take the fatal drugs it provides themselves, and by their own choice. But what in the culture will guide that choice? What is the effect on the patient’s free will when a profession whose entire previous raison d’être has been to assist life now stands ready to give you the tools of death?

Once it becomes legal that such a thing could happen, how long before it becomes expected? Most old people in hospital try to conform to what they think the system wants. If it wants them dead, and gives them the power to die, their grim path of duty lies clear. Some will have families who do not care enough whether they live; others will have no families at all. To all of these, Lord Falconer’s “choice” could become as proverbial as Hobson’s.

It does not have to be this way. Think of the revolution in attitudes to the disabled and mentally handicapped that has taken place in the past 40 years. Note that it is the disabled who form the most eloquent lobby against assisted suicide. In many of their cases, their very existence was considered either impossible or undesirable in the recent past (and could be again). They know that their own story is of overcoming what society once considered more “hygienic”, in favour of what, we now see, is more human.

The same applies to the old. Nothing – certainly nothing medical – can remove all the terrors of death. But a society like ours can certainly summon the cultural, moral and financial resources to care properly for the dying if it thinks it matters. I return to Dr Ashton’s phrase about needing a midwife at the end of life. He is right, but draws the wrong conclusion. The midwife is not someone who kills – that is what an abortionist does. A midwife is on the side of life. That is someone we all need, even – perhaps particularly – when we are dying.

If 'dying with dignity’ is legalised, soon it will be expected - Telegraph (external - login to view)
 
Retired_Can_Soldier
+1
#2  Top Rated Post
Our bodies and minds are our own. If we choose death it should be our decision alone.
 
tay
#3
forums.canadiancontent.net/ca...lly-legal.html (external - login to view)
 

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