A Good Death

Everyone has an opinion about the Euthanasia Bill.

For most people with an opinion, the number of times they will be affected by the bill in their lifetime could be counted on one hand. For me, in my current placement, it would affect me daily. I regularly deal with frail, elderly people with terminal diseases. On the whole, they are managed very well, and are often discharged to die at home with dignity, surrounded by their families, supported in the community.

However, there are regularly people who slowly waste away in side rooms in hospitals, with their poor families spending hours, days, weeks in a horrible limbo awaiting their inevitable, but strangely reticent, death. Desmond Tutu has recently been quoted as saying that a “dignified death is our right”. There is nothing dignified about a prolonged dying process. There is nothing sacred about the last few days spent rattling, gurgling and unable to communicate.

I recently had a patient who expressed the wish to die constantly. He was an elderly gentleman who had lived an incredibly full life and was immeasurably frustrated at his current inability to do all the things he wanted to. He was not coping at home, but refused help, and was repeatedly hospitalised due to falls or chest infections. He refused antibiotics for his third pneumonia, and eventually wasted away after a long period of discomfort in a side room in hospital.

Of course, the situation will invariably be more complex than this. The proposed Bill would allow doctors to provide fatal medication to people judged to have less than 6 months to live. As with everything in medicine, there are no certainties. There is new information emerging all the time; scans can be reported poorly and treatments can work better or worse than expected. Estimating survival time is my least favourite part of my current job in Geriatrics. You will inevitably be proven wrong by a patient living months rather than weeks or hours rather than days. People towards the end of life fluctuate regularly with regards to wishes and needs. They are scared. They are frustrated. They are dying. These are difficult situations. But just because something requires thought, and safeguarding, does not mean it is not worth implementing.

I am not suggesting that we approach terminal illness in any way differently with regards to our palliative care input, and our social support systems. These systems are, by and large, incredible, and hugely beneficial to both the patients and their families. However, I think that we have a right to make decisions about our own lives. We are already able to refuse life-prolonging treatments, we can say no to life saving procedures. However, we are unable to actively end our own lives, and that is contrary to our right to autonomy as human beings.

Bishop Egan is calling for group prayers across the UK prior to the discussion in the House of Lords. Apparently, legalising euthanasia would mark the “catastrophic collapse” of the respect for life. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

As always, religious arguments that hinge on our lives not being our own to dispose of baffle and vaguely amuse me. The argument centres on the fact that God knows what is best for us; life is a gift from God and we should appreciate it. If we take this viewpoint to its full force then where do we draw the line with medical treatments? It is bizarre to me that it is deemed acceptable to do things to prolong our “God given” life, and yet not to shorten it. Surely if God should choose when we die then neither of these things are acceptable. Surely there is an argument that if God has given us the knowledge and ability to heal people, He would be in favour of us using that knowledge to hasten a hideously prolonged wasting away of a previously fiercely independent octogenarian with incurable metastatic disease.

Not all opposition for legalising euthanasia stems from religion. There are people who worry that allowing people the option of ending their lives will lead to a lack of respect for those who don’t, a pressure on the elderly to end their lives prematurely, a reduction in the importance of good palliative care and end of life management.

Safeguarded correctly, no one is going to be forced to die early. Just because euthanasia might be legalised does not mean it will be imposed on the whole population. If you don’t agree with it, then don’t choose it. But people should have the right to decide what happens to them in their final days, a right to die comfortably, quickly, and at a time of their choosing.

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