Phew. What a week! We might have seen history in the making but I for one will be devoutly thankful when the dust settles from this jolly old general election. And rest assured, I have absolutely no intention of extending the agony here.
But I do want to talk about one particular politician, Independent MSP Margo MacDonald. Last week, in the midst of all the election hype, I was invited to go and hear her in person talking about her proposed End of Life Choices (Scotland) Bill. Of course I leapt at the chance. It’s a subject dear to my heart, as you folks know.
On this occasion she stoutly maintained that having Parkinson’s Disease herself hasn’t influenced her in taking up this Bill, but I have to admit her personal circumstances give her a certain edge in my estimation. Anyone who campaigns so tirelessly when they’re battling personally commands my respect.
But here she was, asking for comment and questions about her proposed Bill from a largely medical audience, which included lots of psychiatrists and some palliative care specialists, both of whom have a lot riding on this. Of course, they challenged her. And why not? She wasn’t seeking any latitude because she has an illness herself. And more importantly, by her own admission, she’s asking an awful lot of doctors: viz to end the lives of human beings. Quite deliberately.
Now, if you’ve read my novel on this subject, Right to Die, you’ll know that I fully understand the dilemmas for those people who suffer horrific degenerative neurological diseases. You might detect that I have a lot of sympathy for those who want to end their lives ahead of nature’s schedule. But what you won’t know from that book, is that I personally have very mixed feelings on the subject of assisted death. Depends where I’m standing what it looks like, I guess. But because I feel honour bound to try to present the picture fairly and honestly (well, I’m not a politician), Margo’s debate with the doctors compels me to spell out a few angles thrown up in the discussion that made me think, even though some at least appear in the novel in one guise or another. (Incidentally the book predated Margo’s Bill by a couple of years.)
Here’s roughly how it went (my paraphrasing).
MMacD: This is a Bill to help a small number of people with intolerable or terminal conditions have the kind of dignified death they wish for.
Audience: Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s euthanasia.
MMacD: Ending a life is too big a responsibility for families who, in any case aren’t knowledgeable enough about medical matters; they might guff it up and not know how to correct their mistakes. Ergo, doctors should do the deed.
Audience: Doctors aren’t trained in how to kill either. They wouldn’t know how to. And given the projected small numbers* eligible for this service it’s hard to see how they could be trained, or build up expertise.
*(Based on the Oregon experience, MMacD had projected 55 per annum in Scotland.)
MMacD: Doctors already end lives because of the double effect of the drugs they use: big doses of pain relief shorten lives.
Audience: This is a myth. Research shows that when medication is carefully titrated against pain by palliative care specialists it doesn’t shorten life. It’s only when non-experts panic this happens.
MMacD: The Bill requires psychiatrists to assess the patient’s definition of ‘an intolerable life’.
Audience: Assessments like this are notoriously difficult.
MMacD: The patient drives this. It’s what they personally find intolerable that counts.
Audience: So what are the doctors assessing?
MMacD: One of the rules for this Bill is that the patient isn’t being coerced or subjected to undue influence to die.
Audience: It’s incredibly hard to decide if they are. Pressure comes in many guises.
MMacD: Whilst she has no quibble with religious or moral objections to this Bill, MMacD gets annoyed by the people who make false claims about its risk to vulnerable people. But she also said she feels guilty she’s being too conservative about who would be eligible for this service.
Audience: No, they didn’t say a word!
It’s only fair to underline a couple of points.
- MMacD was inviting challenges. And she stated that she had every intention of having medical experts present at the discussion stage.
- the Bill is at a very early phase. It could change in lots of ways before it becomes law – if it ever does.
- the doctors who spoke are not necessarily representative of all medical opinion and she is not representative of all politicians.
Do add your comments either on the blog, or to me in confidence (see my contact page), I’d love to hear from you. Especially if you can help to clarify my own thinking on some of this. What a minefield!
In the midst of all this turmoil, it’s been a tonic to involve myself in Christian Aid week. The annual Book Sale at St Andrew’s and St George’s in Edinburgh’s George Street is a fantastic example of love in action. (It raised £101,000 last year!) And the people who go out of their way to be sure their donations get to me if I miss them in my door-to-door collecting – they restore my faith in human beings. As did the church I visited the previous week, who really reach out to their local community in practical ways as an integral part of their Christian service. These are the kind of folk who get my vote. Politicians please note!
What a week since I last posted a blog! The news has been a positive playground for medical ethicists!!
IVF clinics reported to be destroying embryos with minor conditions; a ‘genetic breakthrough’ which could help treatments for breast cancer to be tailored to individual need; a mother who forced her son to fake illness being sent to prison; a manager of a home accused of giving elderly residents overdoses of drugs; a powerful torch being trialled in the detection of malignant tumours; patients who travel to Switzerland to die in Zurich’s suicide clinic potentially facing a £30,000 death tax; the novelist, Martin Amis, recommending ‘euthanasia booths’ on street corners where elderly people could end their lives with ‘a Martini and a medal’; a girl of 5 who suffered brain damage during labour being awarded £1.25m by an Essex Trust … enough! enough!
Not surprisingly given my overt interest in the topic (Crucial Decisions at the End of Life and Right to Die) I want to home in on the matter of assisted death. Yes, again! Because it’s been a big week for this topic. Lots of column inches; lots of airtime devoted to it.
In 2007 Tom Inglis fell out of an ambulance in which he was being treated following a pub fight. He sustained brain damage and was paralysed. This week (my blogging week ie) his mother, Frances Inglis, was jailed for life for killing him with an overdose of heroin – on the second attempt. She really really intended to kill him this time, no doubt about that. She posed as his aunt to get admittance to his nursing home, she was armed with a syringe and £200 of heroin, she wedged an oxygen cylinder and a wheelchair against the door and poured strong glue into the lock to delay anyone entering for as long as she could. But, ‘you cannot take the law into your own hands and you cannot take away life however compelling you think the reason,’ said the judge, before telling her she must stay in prison for at least nine years. Outside the court Tom’s brother praised her courage and love. He asked, how could it be legal to withhold food and drink to allow a patient to die slowly, but not legal to end suffering in a quick and calm way. But a crucial point here is that Tom wasn’t requesting death himself. And at least one doctor predicted that he would eventually recover many of his faculties.
Kay Gilderdale’s daughter, Lynn, did request that she could end her ‘miserable excuse for life.’ She’d had ME for 17 years, she was in excruciating pain, and she’d had a premature menopause at the age of 20. Kay provided her with the means to do so. The 31-year old injected herself with the heroin, her mother topped it up with more of the same plus sleeping pills and antidepressants and injections of air into her bloodstream. She too really really intended her daughter to die. But this week she has been acquitted of the charge of attempted murder. Nevertheless she will have to live for the rest of her life with the memories and knowledge of what she has done.
On the same day that Frances Inglis was sentenced to nine years in prison, three senior judges were deciding that an Asian businessman, Munir Hussain, should walk out of prison, his sentence for grievous bodily harm (after beating a burglar with a cricket bat) replaced with a suspended sentence. Justice, compassion, mercy, upholding the law … all the reasons are trotted out for the differing penalties.
But what would you instinctively do if you found a menacing burglar threatening your family? What would you do if your daughter/son was lying in torment, physical and/or mental and begging for your help? Or if you were on the jury deciding the fate of a mother who has deliberately killed her child?
So-called ‘mercy killing’ raises powerful emotions. Campaigners are re-doubling their cries for a change in the law. The current attempts to do so hinge around cases where people are wanting to end their own lives because of terminal illness or intolerable suffering. Similar arguments; important circumstantial differences. But the potential consequences of such a change are sobering too. Doctors under pressure to speculate as to the time left to give credence to the ‘terminal illness’ (the Lockerbie bomber case springs to mind), disabled lives categorised as inferior and worthy of terminating, patients under pressure to end their lives before they become a burden or inconvenience, a slippery slope to euthanasia of the unwilling … You’ll have read the lists too.
Many people face the dilemma of deciding between two tragic choices, not just the few who hit the headlines. Some of them contacted Any Questions? and Any Answers? this week each with their own painful story. I’ve heard many more. I’ve been personally involved in such cases. Some families go ahead and break the law, some think it would be right to but can’t bring themselves to perform the act, and others believe life is sacred and not to be cut short by human hand. And opinion is fierce on both sides.
Independent MSP, Margo MacDonald, found the same thing when she listened to people caught up in these difficult questions, and her appreciation of the fine nuances is reflected in her proposed End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill published this week. It’s hedged about with safeguards:
- a minimum age of 16
- at least 18 months registration with a GP in Scotland
- late stage terminal illness or a degenerative condition or permanent incapacity
- intolerable life
- agreement by two medical practitioners
- a psychiatric assessment of capacity to decide
- 2 witness signatures
- a cooling off period of two days.
She’s a persuasive campaigner and her own situation (she has Parkinson’s disease) gives her a strong platform. But no-one knows how her parliamentary colleagues will react (this is not a vote-winning cause) and without their support it can’t even get through to the next stage. But if it does become law then Scotland could become the first part of the UK to legalise assisted suicide, so it’s a critical issue.
MSPs are expected to vote on this Bill in the autumn – a free vote so they can go with their conscience and not along party lines. Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is due to issue new guidelines on assisted suicide within the next eight weeks.
Which way would YOU want them all to go?