Friday, September 21, 2012

The case to allow medically assisted dying

There is nothing worse than watching someone you love suffer, knowing that there is not a single thing you can do to alleviate their pain. If you know that their pain or distress is part of the process of dying, it can take a long time after they've gone before you forget the trauma of their final days, weeks or, heaven forbid, months.

Actually, there is something worse. I've been there. It's when someone you love is so wracked with pain, in so much despair, that they ask you to put them out of their misery. I can't describe to you how awful that feels. I mean, you wouldn't think twice about ending the suffering of an animal. On the other hand, though, there are other people who need you to be around and not in jail even before you think of the moral and ethical aspects of actually ending a life.

As it happened, we got through that particular crisis, thanks to Macmillan Cancer Support. The suffering didn't end by a long chalk, but its intensity lessened for a time. The person concerned died six days later and, actually, after that moment of despair had an important moment of closeness in a relationship that they would have missed otherwise.

But it could have been different. What if that person had had the option of asking a doctor to facilitate ending their lives, for example by prescribing a lethal dose of medication to be self administered at a time of the person's choosing? There may also be circumstances when it's not possible for them to self administer, so somebody would have to do it for them. If those options were open, once they felt that they were ready for the inevitable, practically and emotionally, they could choose to put an end to  unendurable distress.

The advantage to that is that this is all thought about in the cold light of day, ahead of time and not in the middle of a crisis in an illness which may or may not pass. It's rational, not desperate. Who the hell am I to say that somebody should not be able to take this decision to end their life at a time of their choosing if they have a terminal illness, or an unendurable condition.

It would take the stoniest of hearts not to have been affected by Tony Nicklinson's battle. Who could possibly forget the distress he showed when the Court ruling came through last month which said that he couldn't ask anyone else to administer the fatal dose of drugs he could not take himself? The judges said it was a matter for Parliament to decide. What right have we to force someone to go through that anguish when they want to end their suffering? His daughter, Lauren, wrote a very moving article for Guardian's Comment is free site last week. It's difficult and distressing to read, but I strongly recommend that you do before you vote on this motion.

Politicians are always fearful of putting their heads above the parapet. I am disappointed that a country as advanced and civilised as ours continues to evade the issue. Effectively, Dad and others in his position are forced to take a hit for the pro-life team. To use a religious metaphor, they are a flock of sacrificial lambs. The question must be asked: what country lets someone suffer so horrendously, despite their clear and informed wish to die, because it is too controversial?
If a prisoner were held in these conditions in a prison, there would rightly be accusations of torture. Dad's prison was of a wholly more torturous nature. I still find it difficult to believe that our leaders and lawmakers cannot find a way to make voluntary euthanasia possible, while at the same time protecting those who need safeguarding. There is a real lack of political will. It will not be easy, but right decisions never are. It should be possible to achieve, and, at the very least, talked about, discussed and considered. After all, the next stroke could happen to anyone – would you like to live your life locked in?

Not everybody would choose the path Tony Nicklinson was denied, but I feel that the option needs to be there.

But what about pressure, what about people being forced down that path when they didn't want to be? Of course there have to be safeguards so that can't happen, an independent assessment as part of the process by counsellor or doctor.

My main concern is that efforts to improve palliative care might be stepped back if people had the right to die, but that concern is easily dealt with. Good palliative care can improve the quality of life people have for longer and we really need to make sure we are up to speed with the latest developments. The motion under discussion on Sunday specifically refers to high quality palliative care being available to all who need it.

There is a wrecking amendment up for discussion. It rips the guts out of the motion and calls for a Royal Commission on the issue. I think we need to actually nail our colours to the mast and show that we as a party are sympathetic to the idea of medically assisted dying. The motion allows for a free vote in the House of Commons, but let's not sit on the fence. Let's take the opportunity to make a difference.

I suspect that if the motion was passed e it might get people in other parties to work together across the House of Commons, the whole of Parliament,  to try to move the issue forward. If we pass the amendment which is a retrograde step, nobody will be interested. What we want is an open debate and careful examination of the issues. I suspect we might end up with some sort of draft bill arrangement like we had for libel reform and communications data where the measure is very carefully scrutinised by a Parliamentary Committee with actual legislation the following year, but that would work.

As a rule, I think we need to talk more freely about death and the process of dying. It's a huge taboo, understandably enough, because it's really hard to bear. We need to be more open about sharing our own experiences of being with relatives who have died, and vocal in making sure our own or family member's wishes heard.

For the person I was talking about above, the whole process was botched pretty much from the start, with miscommunication and nobody really talking about it. The doctor said he'd give the diagnosis, but it looks like he never did because the person eventually had to take control of the situation and ask. This isn't how it should be. I find this website, Dying Matters, quite a useful resource, so I'd recommend you bookmark it and pass t on to anyone you think might need it.

My wish for Sunday's debate is that we do something to move this issue forward, to express a wish as a party that we want to give people the right to end their own life in certain circumstances if they so wish. That to me is the truly liberal solution.

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