The right to live?

The issue of euthanasia is one that has been around for a while. In fact, the idea of euthanasia has probably been around for as long as life and illness has been around, practised or not. Films such as The Sea Inside and The Event were directed with the intention to bring the issue to the forefront of society, but Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary about euthanasia, and the Jackson/Aaron storyline in Emmerdale, has forced the topic back into the public’s mouths. And the question on everyone’s lips is, should euthanasia be legalised, or decriminalised, in the UK, as it is in The Netherlands?

The BBC describes the definition of euthanasia as “the termination of a very sick person’s life in order to relieve them of their suffering.” That is, undoubtedly, the purpose of euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide currently carries up to 14 years in prison – which seems an unfair price to pay for wanting to relieve a loved one from their pain. (A difference is made in the law about acting, and refraining from acting which results in death – the latter is referred to in English law as “an omission”. The lines may already be seen as blurred.)  It is not a case of killing someone – I for one do not consider it to be murder – it is aiding someone who wants to die, to do so, but those who do so are liable for murder. But in reality, the majority of cases are the person in question choosing to die, rarely is it made by relatives or, in extreme cases, the courts. Since when was it the state’s job to decide if people can or cannot die? Nobody is charged or punished – in lawful terms – if somebody commits suicide because it was a choice that person made (having had a friend commit suicide after being viciously bullied, I knew that no matter what words were used, no matter how much we would try to push it to the back of her mind, she had made her own choice and, no matter how much it hurt, we accepted that because it was the right choice for her. It is something our friendship group rarely talks about because its a silent mutual feeling that we are torn up with guilt that we didn’t do enough to help her, but we can’t feel guilty forever for a choice that she made – we loved her enough to understand) and there is no option for people who are so unhappy that they consider death as an option, but are physically or mentally unable to administer it themselves. I am not trying to desensitise the issue of suicide or indeed death, but the question has to be asked. Should it be their choice to ask someone to allow them to die, or should it be the government’s choice to say they can’t?

Some people fail to see the distinction between different forms of euthanasia. It is not always standing over somebody with a needle and injecting them with poison. It is very often an act made in the most compassionate of ways. I can’t imagine it would be a decision to be taken lightly in any way. But I don’t think that’s something anybody can relate to unless you’ve been there and done it. I don’t think its right that anybody can say “What you did was wrong” when they rarely know the ins and outs of what happened. Death is a sad, horrible time, but what would be more sad and horrible is being forced to continue to live your life when you don’t want to anymore. You should not be forced by anybody – relatives or medical staff – to die, but you should not be forced to live either.

People should have an explicit right to die. Death is a private matter and as long as there is no harm to anybody else, the state (and other people, including doctors) have no right to interfere. And anyway, is death always something to be considered as a bad thing? Why should it be considered so? A lot of the arguments surrounding the idea that death is bad involve how sacred and valuable human life is – an argument that stems from Christianity and only works as an argument if you actually believe that. A more practical argument would be “people don’t want to die” – but is that because they are scared of the idea of death which, logically, can seem like a scary thought? If someone does want to die, then it eliminates that argument entirely and you are back to asking “If they want to die, why are they not allowed to?” Less compassionate and more pragmatic arguments would include that of freeing up resources for other people to use in the health service – but that wouldn’t cross my mind in a euthanasia situation. What would cross my mind, however, is why nobody is allowing someone to make their own choice, about their own body. I don’t see it as the state’s job to decide who can do what and when to their own body. Ever.

An argument that would come mainly from friends and relatives of someone who wanted to consider euthanasia as an option would be “but they have so much to live for”. Sometimes it isn’t as simple as “They have children, grandchildren, friends, family, a husband, a wife”. Someone considering euthanasia would probably, depending on the circumstances, already be well aware of this fact. It’s not exactly a decision to be taken lightly – once its done, its done and there is no going back. Sometimes it is not a case of not having anything to live for, it is a case of the negatives outweigh the positives. And I can see where that would happen.

My grandfather is battling not only Alzheimers, but also non-Hodgkins lymphoma in his lungs, liver and spine, he has had three heart attacks (my mother delights in telling people the story of when he suffered a heart attack while he was working behind the bar of the pub he owned… and he carried on pulling the pint he was serving before asking for help), been in two car crashes and now lives from a pacemaker and a box of pills every single day. The quality of life he receives here at home with his family isn’t poor, he is fed and clothed and looked after and I know that he is grateful for that – if he could remember the next day the things that we did for him the day before. But I can’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to wake up every morning having no idea where you are, where you’ve been, who you are, who we are. He is trapped in his own thoughts from the 1950s and I can’t even contemplate the idea of not being able to remember things. It isn’t the same as losing your keys – if you try really, really hard and retrace your steps, you can find them and you can remember. Alzheimers isn’t like that – you don’t just forget, you live in the only memories you can remember. My mother and I have had the discussion about it – having Alzheimers in the family increases our chances of getting it ourselves – and we both agreed we wouldn’t be able to live that way. And if one day, my Grandad turns around and tells us he doesn’t want to live like it anymore, then as hard as it may be, I would support him in that decision. Not because I don’t love my Grandad, but because I love him too much to allow him to suffer when he didn’t want to anymore.

People may say that’s a very selfish view. That it is taking “the easy way out”, and is an insult to people who have lived and are living every day with horrible diseases and syndromes. I don’t see it as an insult. I see it as a choice. My grandfather travelled the world for the best part of his life, seeing the most beautiful places in the world, the change in his lifestyle is so drastic, it must be difficult to cope with. I can only imagine. But I wouldn’t view him as selfish if he told us he wanted to die. I would admire the strength it would take to make such a decision. I am far from a heartless person, it would break my heart if that ever happened, but it is not my life and I’m not prepared to tell people how to live theirs. If you want to die, you should be able to die.

Euthansia is not a harsh act. It is an act made out of pure love and compassion to relieve someone from the pain and suffering of their lives. And it should be a choice. A personal choice, not the choice of the government.


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