>Assisted Dying

> The story of Dr Anne Turner was written up by Frank McGuinness and screened on BBC last night. It was an amazingly powerful piece of drama starring Julie Walters as Dr Anne Turner. It was timed to coincide with the anniversary of Dr Turner’s assisted dying – January 24th 2006 – not to coincide with the eve of a parliamentary debate on the subject.

Anne Turner was diagnosed with an incurable brain disease progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). The symptoms were her loss of control emotionally and physically – and we watched with horror as the symptoms developed – violent emotions, inability to swallow and we were allowed an insight into her decision making process in which she decided to end her life while she still had the power of speech to say “enough”.

An added dimension to the drama was the exploration of the effect it had on Anne’s three children who had already watched their father reduced to a shadow of himself through a similar degenerative disease. The children represented the opposition to “assisted dying” as a principle. They, and her friend Clare, called her decision “cruel” and “selfish” – and movingly we watched as Anne’s children embraced Anne and her decision with a compassion that knew the possible cost of prosecution.

In other contexts I assist with theological reflection on similar (though not so extreme) cases. I am often confronted with “thou shalt not kill” from the 10 Commandments as an automatic default position, but attention to Dr Turner’s predicament means such orthodoxy comes across as heartless. Many people have appalling degenerative disease. We would hope that all of them are assisted in their living and dying by first class care from medics and family. Anne Turner’s case is a painful reminder that for a very small number of people their situation is unbearable and that Dignitas and a Short Stay in Switzerland represents a small loophole of light. Leniency in prosecuting those like Anne’s children, Edward, Sophie and Jessica, who exploit that loophole is the right and compassionate response.

How should we respond to last night’s “case study”? It would seem that the general response should be to reassert the “sanctity of life” and renew our commitment to first class palliative care to improve the qulaity of life for sufferers and to make their situations “bearable”. It has to remain the case that our giving of life is good but our taking of life is wrong and that this is a rule which should not be undermined. But in the hard specifics of a case such as this orthodoxy seems to lose heart.

Dr Turner was advocating a change in law to help people like herself. Hers is just one voice amplified by BBC and Frank McGuinness. (As it should be!) But there are other voices like that of Jane Campbell who is Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Her take is that any change in the law in relation to disabled or terminally ill people would be open to abuse and would just reinforce the view that their lives are worth less than others.

“We are all subject to society’s views of disability and serious illness – that it’s terrible and negative – when actually the reality is our lives are no more tragic than a lot of people in society who for whatever reason don’t do so well in life,”

The prospect a change in law is resisted by doctors and faith leaders and within Parliament has resulted in the formation of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well which aims to “to work for the resources, information and levels of care which are necessary for everyone in this country to have a comfortable natural death, and which enable the process of dying to be undertaken with the dignity and respect that each individual deserves.”

“End-of-life decisions, which are taken every day by doctors, shouldn’t be confused with ending-life decisions, which are against the law” says palliative care physician Baroness Finlay.

One thought on “>Assisted Dying

  1. >David, many thanks for a fair-minded exploration of this. It strikes me that before we can work out how to change the law, we need to work out waht we mean by “dying well.” I’m sure there has to be compassion and some degree of personal discretion in the matter. I need to say I think the primary legislation is the crudest and least satisfactory way to exercise compassion and discretion, and at present my sympathies are rather with the chair of the Equality Commission.

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