Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Dignitas Clinic & Assisted Death

I watched the recent TV documentary - on iPlayer as I have no desire to own a TV - which featured the popular Fantasy author Terry Pratchet at Dignitas Clinic. He spoke to two people before they chose to take their own lives at the clinic, and he watched as one of them did so. We, the viewers, watched too.

Inevitably the programme has caused a storm of protest. People argue about the sanctity of life being violated, and are concerned about the dismissal of various religious ideas, the ethics of money earned through aiding suicide, the potential exploitation or ‘removal’ of vulnerable people, and the possible grim ramifications of state-sanctioned suicide. These are valid points which need serious consideration.

Who has the right to define any standard on what is a good and worthwhile life for anyone other than themselves? My definition will differ from yours, and yours will differ from the next person’s, and so on and so on, endlessly.

Pratchet’s documentary emphasised that these people had made an informed choice about when and how to end their lives. It was that individual’s own body, and therefore it was surely their choice to make an exit from life on their own terms before their quality of life deteriorated to a degree that would be considered intolerable by that individual.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel compassion for the newly bereaved wife who had to drive away from the clinic on her own, go back to the hotel and pack her's and her late husband’s things, catch a flight to the UK alone and go home to an empty house and face the legal consequences of her part in her husband’s suicide. Yes, she had a choice. She could have stayed at home while he went away to die. And before her husband swallowed the clear toxic fluid which quickly killed him, she had positively stated that she did not want her husband to go ahead with his planned suicide. She also felt it was his choice to make and wished to respect his choice.

But she’ll always have the memory of sitting on a sofa next to the man she loved while he killed himself. That moment will stay with her and, thanks to the documentary, all their family and friends for the rest of their lives. I suspect this will be no easy thing.

I was concerned that, at Dignitas, it seemed as if only one doctor spoke to the man who we later watched die, albeit on two seperate occasions, and both interviews seemed very brief.  No further counselling was seen to take place.  Perhaps it did, but this wasn't shown in the documentary. 

Both men who died during the documentary would have lived longer. Their physical health didn’t seem so bad, and mentally they both seemed lucid. Exactly how much longer might their lives have continued is impossible to guess, but in neither case did death appear in any way immanent. The problem, as they seemed to see it, was that if their conditions deteriorated beyond an uncertain point then they might become unable to make the choice to end their lives. Rather than risk this, they chose suicide before any final decline could begin.

I have to wonder if they had really looked at other options available, such as nursing homes and hospice care. Despite recent scary headlines trumpeting gloom and doom, many such places do a marvellous job - but no newspapers print stories about the fantastic work which the majority of health care professionals perform every day.

One disturbing aspect of the Dignitas Clinic which I had not known about prior to this documentary was that almost a quarter of their clients choose to die to escape depression. But depression is not terminal! I’m well aware that it can be a terrible illness and a cruel blight on the lives of those who suffer from it, but with psychotherapy, appropriate medication and the will to move on then depression can be overcome.

And I have to wonder how many of these eager suicide committers have even considered the extraordinary potential of nano-technology and nano-medicines? How many have thought about cryo-preservation, or even bothered to make a DNA archive? Yes, even a simple dollop of spit could have given them a second chance of a full and healthy life. Ok, it’s currently only a very slim chance - but better that than no chance at all.

I support the concept of assisted death only to humanely ease immanent passing. Running into death’s embrace in order to dodge circumstances which can be cured or might not even happen seems insane to me.

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