Hazel McHaffie

House of Lords

Assisted life or assisted death, that is the question

Dr Ann McPherson was a committed and energetic GP who made a mark in many spheres of her life. But she felt burdened by her powerlessness to help those of her patients who were terminally ill and suffering beyond their endurance. As a consequence she became an ardent campaigner for a change in the law. When she herself developed pancreatic cancer she knew all too well what lay ahead, but in spite of her own troubles she continued her crusade for as long as her strength allowed. When the disease overwhelmed her, she was forced to endure a horrible death – exactly the kind of end she wanted to spare others from.

Her daughter has courageously shared her story in the BMJ this month, and I found it a most eloquent and persuasive one. She spares few details is recounting the horror. This was indeed the kind of distressing death we would all dread.

Photo courtesy of Photolia

Photo courtesy of Photolia

In the same journal at the beginning of July, an editorial called for doctors to stop opposing assisted dying, and rather adopt a position of ‘studied neutrality’ – not apathy, please note, but neutrality – to accommodate the many different points of view doctors hold. The papers include emotional appeals to society to embrace the old and the disabled instead of thinking of killing them; to value choice as an inherent right; to start properly talking about death …

Ultimately however, this is a matter for parliament not doctors, powerful though they may be, to decide. And indeed Lord Falconer’s Bill designed to open the way to a form of assisted suicide in Britain, had it’s first full parliamentary airing last Friday. The House of Lords was packed; over a hundred members queued up to speak; eloquent appeals were heard without interruption. News items, articles, columns, letters – you’d have to be an ostrich to have missed the subject over the last week or two.

So it’s probably not surprising that lots of people have asked me what I think about the subject. In my novels I work hard to give equal weight to all lines of reasoning and not to betray my own opinion. Right to DieNow, six years after the publication of Right to Die (my own book on this subject), it seems expedient to declare my hand. But first I should say that in spite of my close involvement in this area, I can still be persuaded by the strong arguments on both sides. Emotional firsthand stories still grab me by the throat. I am very far from black and white, I still swither. Indeed, as soon as I’ve posted this, I’m sure I shall read or hear something that will make me wonder all over again. I’d welcome any genuine comment which would point up errors in my thinking. Or indeed any other thoughts on this issue which would contribute to healthy, measured debate.

So, where do I stand? First I should state the problem as I see it: intractable pain and suffering, indignity and distress as features of dying or living with degenerative or totally incapacitating diseases. OK, I know the current Bill is addressing only terminal illness (within 6 months of death – a diagnosis that’s impossible to make with certainty, incidentally), but I want to gather in those who have longer-lasting problems too, who in my opinion, often have a stronger case for seeking a way out of their terrible situation. (I’m not operating under the same constraints as Lord Falconer and his cronies.)

I should hasten to reassure you at this point that I have no intention of rehearsing the arguments or regurgitating the emotive phrases wheeled out by both sides in relation to this current Bill; you’ll be as familiar with them (perhaps even wearied of them?) as I. Rather I want to propose a two stage process.

In the first instance, my appeal to parliamentarians would not be to change the law, but to re-allocate resources. What I’m going to say now may sound utopian, but it’s my view that everyone – absolutely everyone – suffering from a terminal or degenerative illness, should have full access to excellent palliative care of the highest order including, where appropriate, proper psychiatric involvement to eliminate treatable problems like depression or anxiety. At the moment this is very far from the case (even though Britain is recognised as a world leader in this field of medicine). Ask yourself: What kind of a society knowingly condemns some of its most vulnerable citizens to a form of torture, when an alternative is available? It seems to me iniquitous that even established successful hospices are reliant on public financial support to keep going. And that only a tiny fraction of patients who desperately need their services get them.

I would maintain that simply being comfortable and being listened to can change one’s whole perspective on life, no matter how short or long that life might be. So, if pain and distress are capable of amelioration, they should be treated swiftly and effectively. What a different scenario we would have from the outset if that were everyone’s right.

Once this first provision is made, there would be a much smaller number of people for whom life is a prospect worse than death: those for whom palliative care does not offer a solution. And I know only too well that not all pain, not all distressing symptoms, can be relieved: it’s naive to think they can. I would keep these remaining cases well away from media scrutiny (with its attendant risks of vitriol and vilification for those at the heart of these situations). Instead I would propose a system whereby cases could be brought to a kind of Ombuds-committee made up of representatives from the main relevant disciplines who could, with compassion, empathy and experience, in private, help all concerned come to a conclusion which would be the optimal one in these circumstances. And to do so with all speed.

The necessity to go through this process would, it seems to me, go some way towards protecting the vulnerable from vultures and undue pressure to act against their own best interests (one of the biggest worries with the Falconer Bill). And to facilitate this it would be hugely advantageous if Advanced Directives were to become the norm: people spelling out their beliefs and wishes clearly and rationally while they are in complete control mentally.

There would still, of course, need to be careful scrutiny of the legal limits and responsibilities. Doctors should not be required to take risks or actions which are against their consciences or without legal backing. Patients should not be obliged to spend their last days, weeks, months or years battling officialdom. Relatives should not be fearful of dire consequences. Adequate legal provision would have to be made. But in my view it is almost impossible for the blunderbuss that is the law to properly take account of the fine nuances involved in these cases on its own, and to create a catch-all law. Furthermore, at the moment I do not think the Falconer Bill is accurately addressing the real dilemma.

All the Bills drafted to date, all the tragic cases paraded for public scrutiny, all the  discussions linked with them, have forced society to address the issues, to look squarely at the problem. And indeed, surveys show that we as a nation are much more sympathetic to the realities faced by these families than we were a decade ago. Now though, we need a mature and measured response that fully takes account of the things we all dread, and moves us to change our ways. To recognise the importance of good palliative care – not only to value it but to put our money where our mouths are. To respond sympathetically to the urgent needs of those people for whom life even with optimal care is intolerable. For those with fierce intractable scruples to ask: what right have I to impose appalling suffering on others who do not share my personal view or scruples?

Shutterstock image

Shutterstock image

Hmmm. I’m feeling rather vulnerable myself stating my views so forthrightly.

What do YOU think?

 

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To die or not to die – that is the question

Yes, it’s reared its head again as another new year gets underway. The perennial dilemma. Assisted dying: should we? shouldn’t we? [Cue king-sized sigh.]

Right to DieWay back when I was writing Right to Die, (2005-2007 ish), Lord Joffe was working tirelessly and meticulously to get his Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill through parliament. I followed its progress closely, I met with the man himself, and I confidently expected him to succeed. But no,  the House of Lords blocked it. Too hot to handle.

Then two years ago MSP Margo Macdonald waged her passionate campaign to get assisted dying accepted in Scotland. I watched her in action, I listened to her in the flesh, and I honestly thought her End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill would get somewhere, given the publicity she generated and her own personal struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. But no. I was wrong again. It was thrown out.

Now this month Lord Falconer has published his report on behalf of the Independent Commission on Assisted Dying (set up and partly funded by Sir Terry Pratchett). The story is similar. They recognised the distressing situations people find themselves in under the present system, the anxiety it causes healthcare providers, and the challenging burden it represents for the police and prosecutors, and found the present law both ‘inadequate‘ and ‘incoherent‘. They looked for a solution for people with the mental capacity to request assistance and a clear sustained wish to die.

Once again practices in other countries that permit varying levels of assisted death came under scrutiny. The Commission ‘did not like much of what they saw.‘ In Switzerland, the Dignitas clinic is an alien environment where patients are far away from loved ones. In Oregon, patients must take 90 pills, often without a doctor present. In the Netherlands, even teenagers and people with mental illness are helped to die. The Commission deemed all these practices undesirable for Britons.

But in any case,  irrespective of the efficacy of practices elsewhere, in reality the opportunity to go abroad for death is really only available to the wealthy. Furthermore, because of the threat of legal action against relatives  who assist them, many are forced to take their own lives early while they are still physically able to do so. So, nothing new; but the painful truths revisited and reiterated.

Like their predecessors, the Commission came to the conclusion that a change is overdue. GPs should be able to prescribe lethal doses of medication for dying people to take themselves, they said.

Lord Falconer’s recommendations though, are much narrower that Margo Macdonald’s. They would only apply to people with less than a year to live, who are capable of drinking the medication unaided.  They do not include those who are suffering unbearably but for whom death is not imminent. Neither Margo herself, nor the redoubtable right-to-die campaigner Debbie Purdy who has MS, would qualify. After all they’ve done to open up the debate and clarify the law! A retrograde step surely, not to cater for the people in greatest need of help. Because in reality, terminally ill patients close to death are often helped subtly and carefully and lovingly to have a good death. It’s the ones with lingering declines because of conditions that rob them of power and control and dignity inch by degrading inch that we need to worry about most.

In fairness, this latest august committee conceded that there are dangers in what they recommend and extreme caution is needed. Pressure might be exerted on vulnerable people to end their lives – either from within themselves or from family members. Hence, in their scheme of things, disabled people, or those with depression or dementia, would be ineligible for assistance.

Or maybe they felt that a staged approach is advisable. Start small. Test the water. It’s conceivable. But could backfire.

The next step would be to discuss their report in parliament. But it will inevitably face stiff opposition. Politicians have proved themselves reluctant to back this particular hot potato. Vocal religious leaders are against the taking of life – full stop, and few politicians will risk alienating them.  And many in the medical profession are reluctant to publicly support something which appears to fly in the face of their avowed duty and intent to save life and do no harm, although, if you read the evidence to the Commission you’ll see that a considerable number of eminent doctors do privately support a change in the law.

Nevertheless the report places much of the burden for implementing change on doctors. They are the ones who must screen eligible patients, tell them about possible alternative treatments, deliver the lethal prescription, be present during the final moments, cooperate with the police, and report to a monitoring service. Burdensome indeed. Especially if you have personal reservations. And many doctors fear that allying themselves with such a death service would compromise their relationship with their other patients.

But identifying any category of person to take this role presents me with my personal biggest dilemma. It’s easy enough for those who aren’t medically trained to insist, ‘Oh yes, somebody should help these people to die.’ But would they be prepared to administer that fatal dose? To live with the knowledge that their action had killed a fellow human being? Me, I feel sick if I accidentally step on a snail! I couldn’t even finish off an almost-dead rabbit left behind by a hit-and-run driver. Squeamishness personified, me. Who am I to say, ‘Yes, we need this change, but you do it, not me’ ? That’s where all my carefully worked through logical reasoning breaks down.

This time I haven’t spoken to Lord Falconer in person, but if I had to declare my opinion as to the future of this latest attempt to offer assistance with dying in the circumstances outlined, I would rate it unlikely to succeed. Especially given the accusations flying around of bias and prejudice in this particular committee. And the problem of knowing who has less than a year to live. And the expertise required to assess people with a terminal illness for anxiety and depression – could GPs do it? And the time necessary to establish a sustained and genuine wish for death.

However, talking about these controversial and emotive issues that involve unbearable suffering and mental anguish, has to be better than sweeping them under the carpet. So if it keeps the issues alive it will have served a function. And in the meantime, let’s just hope and pray that those who need it get excellent palliative care from staff who support the concept of a pain-free dignified death.

Curious really, Right to Die came out in 2008 but is just as topical in 2012. The reverse of what I expected when I wrote it.

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Celebrity and courtesy

It’s not every day that I receive an envelope bearing the House of Lords crest. So perhaps I can be forgiven for tearing it open casually without noticing – and ruining the envelope in the process! But anyway it was the contents that prompt me to tell you about the experience, not the crest. A charming throwback to a byegone era.

The letter was from Baroness Mary Warnock – probably the best-known moral philosopher in the country, for those of you who don’t instantly recognise the name. The Warnock Report? Ring any bells?

I’ve read lots of her writing; heard her speak. But I finally met her in person at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year when we appeared together at an evening event about assisted dying. We’d both brought out books on the subject within weeks of each other (her’s: An Easeful Death; mine: Right to Die). She’s in her eighties now but a wonderfully switched-on lady who still sparks controversy in the press periodically (mary-warnock). Good for her. I don’t always agree with her but I hope my synapses are still crackling as merrily if I ever reach that age. Anyway, at her request, a few weeks ago I sent her a copy of my latest manuscript, Saving Sebastian (about a family seeking treatment to have a baby of the same tissue type as an older child with a fatal illness). ‘Sent her a copy’ – sounds casual, doesn’t it? In reality it was a heart-in-my-mouth sensation posting it. Because not only does this amazing woman have a planet-sized brain, but she has committees named after her – distinguished committees on related topics.

And this envelope held her response. Big breaths. Steady the racing heart.

The endorsement was very encouraging. Very kind. So, why do I mention this here? Because the letter itself was exceptional: hand-typed (complete with uncorrected errors – lots of). The crested envelope was hand-written. This famous and brilliant lady took the trouble not only to read the book within a fortnight of receiving it, but to personally and laboriously write a proper courteous letter to me about it – no dictation to a secretary, no hasty email. That kind of attitude towards ordinary people impresses me more than any prestigious awards – and she’s had her fair share of those.

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