Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The right to die?

Last week I watched a BBC documentary with Terry Pratchett. It was about people who suffer from terminal and degenerative disease and illnesses who wish to end their life prematurely to rid themselves, and their families, of pain and suffering using "assisted suicide." As it stands, in the UK, euthanasia is illegal. Anyone who helps somebody to die, even with the patient's consent, will face serious charges and most likely a lengthy prison sentence. There are only a very select few places that allow the practise of euthanasia. Most people from the UK, if they wish to die, will go to over to Switzerland or Belgium, where euthanasia is legal and there are specialised clinics that patients can go to to end their life in a controlled environment. The most popular being the Dignitas clinic, which was shown in the documentary. It is such a controversial topic, that it is rarely spoken about openly.

So, the question is, is it ever ok? Do we have a right to say when we end our lives in the right circumstances? Or it unethical, selfish? Is it the "easy way out" rather than facing up to and living with your condition? The answer isn't definite. Many will say that suicide is never acceptable. Others will say it is if it is to end long term suffering. And of course, there are those still on the fence.

Personally, I am absolutely for the right to die. I'm not religious, I am an atheist which probably contributes to part of my opinion on this as a lot of religious people will claim the whole thing is going against the nature of God and the fate he has already planned for us. To me, we all live by our own means. We choose our own paths in life, not necessarily the right ones but it is still our own decisions that map out the person we are and how we live our lives. Why then, should our death not be in our own hands? Why can we choose how to live but not how to die? Why is our most personal and inevitable path, out of our control? I am against suicide in most circumstances. For example, a man who is up to his neck in debts, cannot afford to keep his home, his partner has left him and taken his children. He throws himself off a bridge because he can no longer cope with the stress. He leaves behind his wife and children and for what? Money? Had he thought about it properly and got the help he needed, he could have finally picked himself up, seen the light at the end of the tunnel and got his life back on track. Of course, this doesn't apply to all suicides. Most people who commit suicide suffer in silence and never seek help at all. But the fact is, whether they do speak out or not, there is help available for them to try and get them back on the straight and narrow. Most of these people have their whole lives ahead of them. Which is where I believe my line at least, is drawn.

The suicide I can fully agree with, is assisted, when the patient is, as I said before, suffering long term. The difference with them and others who commit suicide, is that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The one and only inevitability for them is death. It's just a case of how they choose to die. On the one hand, they could put up with the pain or day to day suffering their condition causes them until eventually it catches up with them, they can no longer do anything and are confined to a bed in which they will die. These people, of course, could live for a very long time with their condition if the severity of it is mild in the beginning, which usually it is. An MS sufferer could live right into their late 40's, even longer perhaps. Their family would have them around for all that time, to build memories within the short time, in comparison to the average lifetime, that they have with them. I'm not entirely sure, as thankfully I haven't ever been in this situation, if I would rather this or not. If someone I loved was struck down with an illness, I'm not sure whether I could imagine losing them knowing they still had time left. But then again, I don't know if I could watch them in pain, knowing there was a way out for them if they so wished. Would that be selfish of me? To want to keep them around because I didn't want to lose them, even knowing what they were going through and that every day was a struggle for them?

Of course, the other option, is euthanasia. As I've pointed out, and as most people know, it is illegal in the United Kingdom. Anybody who wishes to end their life, will have to go somewhere that it isn't illegal. Which, of course, would come at a price. It also takes a long time to be considered by the clinics as they will not accept anyone who they believe is ending their lives for the wrong reasons. Taking Dignitas as an example, those who are dying, if considered, have to be rigorously checked twice by a doctor to assess their medical and psychological wellbeing before the process can begin. They are taken to the clinic and are given an overdose of the drug Pentobarbital to drink which will send them into a deep sleep and will eventually kill them painlessly by respiratory arrest. I find this a dignified end to a life. Making sure you are surrounded by the ones you love down to the little things, like what you want your last meal to be. As it stands, for this procedure, it costs in the region of £5000 which covers the costs of the assisted dying procedure and all after death costs such as funeral expenses or transportation of the body back home. To me, I don't think this is really a method that could be abused.

I have read a number of stances against this. Many fear that legalising euthanasia in the UK would put specific groups at risk, such as the disabled. Others say that it is open for abuse, people can use it to "kill off" people and pass it off as an assisted death. And I do comprehend the problems that people have with it, especially as it is on a topic as delicate as death. I have tried looking into the arguments against and try to find if there is a way that people could use the system negatively. And if it was not monitored correctly, the chances are that someone could find a way around it. But if we were to take on the strict procedures practised by clinics overseas, such as Dignitas, which involves having to pay and be assessed by medical professionals then I fail to see how it could be abused. Patients have to consent to everything voluntarily. They have to fill  in their own forms, they have to have witnesses present who can verify that they have personally consented to everything. Therefore nobody could "have someone killed off" for the hell of it. Nobody could slip through the ropes. Risk groups like the disabled won't be come at by a firing squad. If they don't want to end their life, they don't have to. Many people with degenerative illnesses or conditions such as Alzheimer's (like Terry Pratchett who was presenting the above documentary) have to make the decision to end their life earlier than they would perhaps have liked, because they have to be able to give their consent while they still can. For an Alzheimer's sufferer, for example, if they get to a point where their condition is so bad that they cannot consent then they will simply be refused the procedure.

Looking at the ethical and religious arguments against euthanasia, it seems there is a pattern regarding "society's view on the sanctity of life." That if it were introduced, we would stop caring for those who are disabled or terminally ill or at least their care would deteriorate marginally. That with proper care, euthanasia is unnecessary and that by making euthanasia legal, it gives doctors far too much power. And, of course, the point I touched on earlier, it is against God's Will. All valid arguments of course. But again, those who wish to die, do so at their own expense and their own wish. Nobody forces them to do it. And would people really abuse a system that costs them thousands of pounds to use, if it was even possible? As for the care side of the argument, I don't think that it would be an issue. In comparison to the amount of people living with illness and disabilities, people choosing the option of assisted dying is a minute percent. The overwhelming majority would still request care, to dwindle care for the sake of a handful of people would be ridiculous by anyone's standards and I think, or perhaps I'm naive, that the doctors and nurses who train for years to help those in need, would suddenly decide not to do their jobs and instead, kill off everyone who falls into a "risk" category. Not all doctors are given the so called power, only a few would be assigned to this particular area. So you wouldn't walk into your GP's surgery and find out he's just helped kill someone before you went in for your appointment. And, speaking from an atheist's point of view, the argument of God's Will doesn't sit with me. If a God did exist, I don't believe he would rather see people suffering. Young children die all over the world every day, I cannot understand how any God could condone that yet accept people are living in pain and are growing more weary by the day yet it is against his word that they should end their own suffering. But then again, that is just the viewpoint of someone who doesn't believe any God exists, as of course, nobody living truly knows.

In summary, I thoroughly believe that, under the right circumstances, euthanasia should be legalised in the UK. I believe it should be strictly monitored like it is in the various clinics overseas that offer it. I think with the proper assessment and procedures there is no reason to believe that it would be abused nor that it would have a negative impact on the rest of society and to all other disabled and terminally ill people who wish to carry on living their lives to the full until their illness takes over. Most people who choose to end their lives don't want to have to travel to another country to do it. They would rather be able to stay within their country, their home. The place they have lived most, if not all of their lives.

I think whichever way you look at it, there are a lot of extremely courageous people who have to face these things in reality. To choose to live with it knowing that you will never be able to beat it but fighting it until the end is immensely brave. But I also think, that to decide it is your time to end your suffering and the suffering your loved ones face watching you, feeling powerless, knowing you have to leave them behind, is also brave. And I don't think there is anything wrong with wanting to make sure you die with dignity. I don't believe there is any right or wrong way to die but I do believe that, to some extent we should have the option of choice.  It is our final act in life, to die, and although we spend every day running away from it, it is inevitable. To be able to embrace it rather than fear it and when your time will be, would be, to a lot, a comfort and is something that many people with long term illness or disabilty hang on to until the very end and when there is no other paths left in their lives for them to take. In the end, you should be able to choose who has control over your death. Society? Or the person who has lived your life and the only person who can really understand; You?

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