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Home > Culture and Society

Right not to not die

30 July 2005

Itís not unsimple. Most people expect the right to live. Some people desire the right to die. Others want the right to not die if thereís a hint of a ghost of a whisper of a chance that a few brain cells can be kept gasping on the treadmill for a few more precious moments. This week, a 45-year-old man with a degenerative brain condition unwon his right to not die. That sound you donít hear is Diane Pretty, who fought for legal release from the body that had become worse than useless to her, not spinning in her grave.

Most of us would prefer not to imagine the living hell of a terminal condition such as Prettyís Ė motor neurone disease, which Professor Stephen Hawking has defied to the point of sending himself up on The Simpsons. Faced with being unable to eat, move, speak or fuck, most of us would rather be dead. Only itís an option we still donít have Ė however sick we get, however insupportable our lives become to us, itís a party we are forced to stay at until, near as dammit, its natural end. Till thereís nothing left but Blue Bols to drink, even if you could drink it.

But peopleís definitions of dignity do vary Ė some feel strongly that as soon as you need assistance wiping your self, itís time to go; others believe that every squeezed droplet of life, whatever the circumstances, however relentless and unbearable the agony, is sacred. Lancasterís Leslie Burke is one of those who is not big on the idea of going gentle into that good night, thanks, and last year won a high court ruling which would stop doctors withdrawing sustenance from him during the final stages of his illness. The ruling was celebrated as a landmark for the terminally ill Ė some of whom were undoubtedly pleased, while others were incensed and outraged. The two factions will now be swapping places, along with their respective supporters, because the General Medical Council has won its appeal against the hearing.

Itís a nasty one, this, with no winners Ė reminiscent of the Terri Schiavo debacle, during which debate raged as to which superlatively awful thing was worse. Burke is afraid that, as his health declines, he will be seen as dispensable, as little more than pre-dead, and that medics will gently nudge and shunt him towards the grave by denying him food in his final days when he is too weak to protest. A reasonable fear, and not one any of us can presume to dismiss Ė but it is his fear. It is not the fear of many terminally-ill people, for whom death isnít quite as conventionally horror-flick scary as for those who arenít so intimate with it, and who fear the continuation of their painful existences a great deal more.

It seems excruciatingly obvious - with doctors insisting that this appeal win isnít giving them licence to whip out feeding tubes willy-nilly, and pro-lifers and pro-choicers locking horns all over again about death sentences and life sentences Ė that what Burkeís case illustrates is that all cases are different. The law as it stands condemns far too many people to a miserable life that they do not want, a life they should have the right not to live. The simplistic fear is that a euthanasia law will usher in some horrific new era wherein you can wheel Gran down to the local clinic and have her put down by some gurning butcher in a Harold Shipman mask. But thereís no sensible or moral choice other than to deal with each individual, like, individually. Hawkingís astonishing mind appears to have somehow sustained the rest of him several decades beyond the point at which he was expected to shuffle off, but he is very much the exception Ė for most people in his place, the novelty of the robot voice would wear off pretty swiftly. Itís absurd to prevent people who want out from getting out, to force them to stay. That way Schiavo lies.

Personally, as soon as we find ourselves unable to communicate, and at the mercy of whoeverís got the TV remote, weíre off to Switzerland. Maybe via Amsterdam. For old timesí sake.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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