Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Why it's wrong to help the sick to die

Many years ago, when I was health correspondent for this newspaper, a well-respected family doctor told me he had no intention of dying a slow, degrading death from a terminal disease like cancer.

He pointed to his GP bag and said: "I have something in there that I will give myself when the right time comes."

I must admit that I found his words unsettling. Here was a man who had dedicated his life to healing and helping others, but who would not shirk from taking his own life in certain circumstances.

That doctor's words came back to me recently after I interviewed outspoken Derry writer Nell McCafferty. She wants a national debate on the issue of euthanasia and how to help people die with dignity.

Her long time friend Nuala O'Faolain recently disclosed that she is suffering from terminal cancer. In a very moving radio interview she told how the shocking diagnosis has robbed her of virtually everything in life. She can no longer find joy in anything.

And Nuala also wondered how death may come to her. How would her body decline and what would the actual process of dying be like?

Those are horrible questions to even contemplate, but they are the sort of questions that many, many people facing a terminal illness must ask themselves in their most secret moments.

We all know that we will die, but the diagnosis of a terminal illness virtually sets a date. We are on nature's death row.

Nell McCafferty feels that like the prisoner on death row we should be offered the option of a lethal injection.

It is possible to see her argument. I have witnessed people I have loved dearly die from cancer. Yes, there was a lack of dignity in their final days in spite of not only expert but caring help from specially trained nurses.

I remember praying on more than one occasion that the person would die and die soon. It was obvious that they were in distress — not necessarily from pain as hospice care has developed very effective pain control, but from the breakdown in body function.

But I also felt guilty about praying for their death. Was I really hoping that their distress would be over soon, or was I wanting death to spare me watching them die?

What right had I to wish them dead when I could see, that even in those final days, the person was still fighting desperately for life?

Nell argues that even in our treatment of terminally ill patients we are effectively delivering euthanasia.

Giving the patients repeated doses of powerful pain killing drugs like morphine does shorten their lives, she says.

That may well be true. It is also true that some people would like to have the option of assisted death in the face of terminal illness, before they become bedridden invalids unable to care for themselves.

Yet, somehow, despite the logic of such an approach, I find the thought of euthanasia even more frightening than the prospect of a terminal illness.

It goes against everything I have been taught throughout my life about the preciousness, even sacredness, of life itself.

I doubt that I would even have the courage to say to someone, 'I'll take that final jab now'. I doubt that I could be my own executioner never mind anyone else's. For that essentially is what euthanasia makes you, an executioner.

Could I take a life, even my own, even for humanitarian rather than criminal reasons?

I have no doubt, that unlike my doctor friend, I could not.

Maybe his years of treating patients, presumably many of whom were terminally ill, prepared him for giving himself a final injection in certain circumstances.

I recognise that it can be a huge dilemma. Should you watch a loved one die in pretty dreadful circumstances, or would it be more humane to assist them to die before that stage?

In my view we don't have the right to make that call. It is not for us to determine the hour and the minute of a person's death.

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