Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

There are no easy answers in matter of life and death

The moving story of Jenny Grainger - who helped her mum take her life - has reignited the assisted suicide debate. Here campaigners for and against have their say

FOR: Jo Cartwright

Dignity In Dying campaigns for the choice of assisted dying to be available to terminally ill, competent adults within strict legal safeguards.

For this to become a reality, we would need to see a change in the law in the UK; a law similar to the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

This act has been in force for 15 years and annual reports from Oregon show that cases of people choosing assistance to die have remained low - never exceeding more than 0.25% of all deaths; that people considered vulnerable have not suffered under the law change and that palliative care has improved since the legalisation of assisted dying.

Sadly, cases like Jenny Grainger's, who had to stand by and watch her mother stop eating and drinking to have a better death than she might otherwise have had, are not uncommon.

Too often, we see accounts of people travelling abroad to die, or attempting to end their lives at home, sometimes alone to avoid implicating loved ones.

For this reason, as well as the many people who suffer unbearably against their wishes, we campaign for a change in the law.

While it remains illegal to assist another to die in the UK, Debbie Purdy's legal challenge clarified what actions were likely to result in prosecution and which are likely to be forgiven in cases of assistance to die.

It came in DPP guidelines, which apply in Northern Ireland as well as in England and Wales.

The guidelines make it clear that compassionate amateur acts of minor assistance to die are unlikely to result in prosecution, but professional assistance to help another to die is likely to be prosecuted. This means that those who travel to Switzerland with a dying friend, or family member, choosing an assisted death, or who sit with a loved-one who is refusing food and water, are not likely to be prosecuted.

While it is absolutely right that these actions are considered with compassion, this policy of forgiveness for amateurs who break the law is not good enough.

If we agree that people like Barbara Grainger should not have to suffer against her wishes at the end of her life, which the vast majority of us do, then we must continue to fight for a law in the UK which allows dying, competent adults the choice of a peaceful and dignified assisted death.

No one should have to contemplate travelling thousands of miles for assistance, or weeks refusing food or water to have what they consider a good death.

Against: Liam Gibson

Many families can identify with the suffering experienced by Barbara and Jenny Grainger. They, nonetheless, find the legalisation of assisted suicide a chilling prospect, as it would downgrade the value the state places on many vulnerable groups.

It would affect not only the terminally ill, but also the disabled, those with long-term conditions and some accident victims.

The assisted suicide debate usually focuses on the terminally ill, who want to die. But where the law has permitted it, in Switzerland for example, it has moved on to take the lives of the chronically ill and even the depressed.

In the Netherlands, the Groningen protocol permits the routine killing of newborn babies with spina bifida.

Many in the 'right to die' campaign already call for various groups to be helped to die.

In Britain, some argue that Alzheimer's patients no longer have the right to life. They are merely vegetables.

When humans are called vegetables, we ought to be worried. We only need to look at where such thinking has led in the past.

Under the German euthanasia programme, disabled children were called "useless bread gobblers".

Some people are motivated by the desire to end the suffering of someone they love. But bureaucracies and health systems see all problems in terms of cost/benefit.

Can anyone doubt, that given the opportunity, some sections of the NHS wouldn't try to save money spent on patients they refer to as "coffin dodgers"?

Soon the right to die would become the duty to die.

While the potential for abuse by greedy or uncaring relatives is obvious, the proposed safeguards have not been worth the paper they've been printed on.

The vulnerable and sick need support and reassurance they won't suffer alone. It is sometimes difficult for families to give this support, so there is a duty on society to provide it.

The compassionate response to suffering is not to encourage suicide, but to offer the palliative care and psychological support the sick need to help them live.

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