AT DEATH’S DOOR

Assisted suicide, mercy killing, euthanasia, call it what you will, simply won’t go away, and it promises to run and run for years to come.

In the recent past, we have been treated to the outpourings of Martin Amis and Terry Pratchett on euthanasia and assisted suicide, and both merit our careful consideration.

Martin Amis, I suspect with tongue in cheek, advocates “euthanasia booths” on street corners where the elderly can end their lives with a martini and a medal. He predicts a “silver tsunami” of increasingly elderly and thoroughly useless people, stinking out the restaurants and cafés and shops, in constant conflict with the younger generation. He has a point, although not attractively made. More and more of our precious resources will have to be devoted to them, from the doctor’s surgery, to the hospitals, to the care homes and finally to the hospices. And as we all know, the state pension was devised to support the elderly into their mid seventies, not into their eighties and nineties.

I live in a retirement area, and although I am not in the first blush of youth, I find that the elderly can be unintentionally irritating on many levels. Driving behind them is an ordeal, queuing behind them at the checkout whilst they count out every penny, dodging their electric carts as they trundle down the pavement with a miserable expression fixed, rictus like, on their faces, all this and more is enough to test the patience of a saint. But beneath these petty irritations lies a deeper malaise. Medical science may well keep us going for longer and longer, but sadly, without the quality of life, it seems so terribly pointless. This is, or should be, the nub of the debate.

Terry Pratchett speaks with greater conviction, as he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and in his opinion, a fate worse than death. He is probably right. His aim is for a good and rich life well lived, and at the end of it, in the comfort of his own home, and in the company of loved ones, to have a death worth dying for.

And finally, we now have yet another “clarification” of the law on assisted suicide by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions. It is not his fault, because he has been passed the poisoned chalice, but his “clarification” is meaningless. He simply repeats what we already know, that each case is unique, and each case must be considered on its own merits. We already know that Debbie Purdy’s husband will not be prosecuted if he assists in her suicide, and I like to think that all who fall into this category will also escape prosecution, but there is no guarantee. To put it bluntly, it is not a guarantee that any law officer can give.

All these are noble sentiments, expressed as they are against the backdrop of a society where old age is to be despised, not revered, and where elderly relatives are shipped out at the first sign of inconvenience, not to mention incontinence.

But back to the nub of the debate. It matters not to which God we address our prayers, there remains a fear of the unknown, and a fear of dying. It was Edward Fitzgerald who wrote:

“Strange, is it not? That of the myriads who before us have passed the door of darkness through, not one returns to tell us of the road, which to discover, we must travel too.”

But above all, and the strongest argument against euthanasia, or mercy killing, or assisted suicide, is to decide when the time is right, and most important of all, to decide who decides. Those suffering a terminal illness have been known to recover, as have those in a deep and apparently irreversible coma. Those, like Terry Pratchett, may still enjoy a quality of life, even in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, and once Terry gets there, and is presumably incapable of deciding when the time is right, who in the company of those he loves decides when to pull the plug? And is it ever possible to escape the suspicion, real or imagined, that this merciful release was not motivated by self interest on the part of those who remain behind? And how is it to be done? On a show of hands?

The same with Martin Amis’s euthanasia booths. If you are well enough to walk into such a booth under your own steam and of your own volition, you are presumably well enough to live another day.

There is no easy answer. I do not hold a torch for either side of the argument, as I can see the strengths and weaknesses of both. But we must ask ourselves one question. When we are old and frail, and perhaps lacking the quality of life we once enjoyed, is it not better to allow the forces of nature to decide our going, even if, to some, we should have gone a long time ago? I am not sure if I am ready to have my nearest and dearest circling my death bed like some carrion crow, ready to pick over the bones of my rotting corpse.

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david

David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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