Hazel McHaffie

Royal College of Physicians

Is it ever right to take a life?

With all the events marking 75 years since D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, and other war-related events, my mind has been travelling the well-worn path of … is it ever justifiable to take a life? And is there a kind of life that’s worse than death?

Then for the last two Thursdays those questions have swirled again, watching Susanna Reid interviewing inmates awaiting execution in maximum security prisons in the USA for her series: Death Row: Countdown to Execution. The state of Texas supports the death penalty, and the locals appear to take it in their stride, but Susanna found it unsettling just being in the town with the execution chamber, to know exactly when a human being was being walked to that gurney, strapped down, given that lethal shot of Pentobarbital. She wanted to know exactly what was happening, how everyone felt – the convicted man, the family, the witnesses, the townspeople. She’d met these men briefly in the last few days of their lives, and in spite of their criminal backgrounds, it clearly troubled her.

Many inmates are held on Death Row for decades (the average 12 years) and massive amounts of money are spent on appeals even up to the eleventh hour. Fewer than 2% are exonerated but the process has to be gone through, seeking additional years or days of life if nothing else. For those who are the victims of the crimes (and that often includes the family of the convicted man) the death brings a form of closure; but opponents believe that society should not sink to their level. After all, as they said, we don’t rape rapists, we don’t steal from burglars; why should we kill murderers? ‘We should be better than that.

And against all this my mind goes to my own area of particular interest, viz the issues around assisted death for people on a different kind of trajectory: those with incurable, degenerative illnesses; trapped for years in many cases, with no hope of a reprieve. Their own kind of death row; their own kind of hell. And our society – too humane to kill convicts – is also unwilling to countenance patients ending their own lives when the pain, the suffering, the indignity, are intolerable. Is this justice? Is this fair? Is it humane? As Scottish former Rugby Union player Doddie Weir (who has Motor Neuron Disease himself and has just buried his mother after a fairly short experience of cancer) said this week: Being a farming boy, when there is no hope with the animals you are able to put them out of their misery, but with humans it is not allowed. It does not seem fair sometimes.

So many truly difficult questions; so many nuances and valid perspectives. I studied this topic in depth before writing Right to Die, published in 2008. I’ve repeatedly returned to it since. Eleven years on we’re no further forward in terms of the law. Assisted suicide is still illegal; doctors who help a person to die still face a jail sentence of up to 14 years. However, public opinion has swung much more towards some provision to help people caught up in these intolerable situations, helped in no small measure by the brave souls who have shared their harrowing experiences openly. Then in March this year, the Royal College of Physicians declared neutrality on the subject. And this week the Royal College of General Practitioners has said it will consult its 53,000 members on whether the time has come to drop their opposition to assisted dying. The wheels grind oh so slowly, but they do seem to be turning.

What do you think?

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It’s all relative …

Phew! It’s been quite a week.

My mind has been split too many ways for its own good, juggling preparation for a number of forthcoming speaking appointments all on different subjects, as well as finalising the text and cover of Inside of Me, plus a variety of other demands outside of my writing life. I confess I’ve felt unusually cross-eyed, and tense, and generally discombobulated.

I won’t bore you with the detail, except to share the most exciting development: the cover of Inside of Me is now chosen! Yeah! It’s been unusually tricky getting it right this time, but thanks to a very patient designer, Tom Bee, who provided lots of choice and properly listened to my quibbles, we have a striking end result that feels good. I’ll share it with you as soon as it’s finalised.

The Dean's DiariesSo, in the midst of all this angst, it was something of a welcome escape to go to a book launch for Professor David Purdie‘s latest offering: The Dean’s Diaries, held in all the magnificence of the Royal College of Physicians’ premises in the centre of Edinburgh. I found myself in august company. Purdie himself is a well-known and brilliant raconteur and was both witty and amusing on this occasion, offering, like Peter Ustinov, ‘all the various accents for his superb mimicry; and the rare combination of brevity of language with breadth of expression‘. Enviable skills.

His latest slim volume is a compilation of observations and anecdotes by the Dean of Edinburgh’s fictitious St Andrew’s College, ‘renowned for its academic oddity, interdepartmental warfare and explosive disasters‘. A happy blend of fact and fiction. I defy anyone to read it without laughing aloud. Clever, heretical, irreverent, stunningly good writing. A real tonic. Guaranteed to lift the spirits and banish tension. Just what I needed. Oh, and the Dean reckons that ‘Disparate activities, especially if novel, are apparently useful in staving off the onset of dementia … and … keeping the old frontal cortex ticking over‘, so perhaps I should be embracing more challenges not seeking less.

Alexander McCall Smith (who appears in the book as himself) was to have chaired the evening, but in the event he was in India … ahhh … therein lies a salutary and timely reminder. His life puts my present little alarms and excursions firmly into perspective. Sandy is probably the most prolific author I know personally, his daily word output is phenomenal, he’s constantly in demand as speaker/reviewer, juggles innumerable interests, and travels the world on a regular basis. And still finds time for friends and colleagues. Does he ever sleep?

OK, McHaffie. Take a big breath. Break down the tasks on your puny little list into manageable pieces. Tackle each one systematically. Tick them off; reduce the pressure.

There you go. Calm restored. Thanks to two professors and a hefty dose of laughter.

 

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