Hazel McHaffie

severe disability

Assisted dying wrapped in silk

Photo courtesy of Photolia

Image courtesy of Fotolia

Joanna is a young woman in constant pain. She’s tetraplegic following a car accident, totally dependent on others for her every need 24 hours of every day, and facing the prospect of another 20-30 years in a similar state. A bright nimble brain in a paralysed body. Trapped. She isn’t physically able to end her own life; the law doesn’t allow her to be killed by others. No wonder she’s depressed.

But so too, is her mother Sarah, trapped with her. She asserts that her daughter said on many occasions, ‘If you loved me, you’d kill me,’ although, as the prosecuting lawyer reminded her, ‘We only have your word for that.’ And yes, Sarah is in court because she has admitted to killing Jo with a lethal cocktail of drugs.

On the surface it looks like a straightforward battle about the morality of helping someone to die. It’s not until Sarah is under questioning that her own defence lawyer senses something is wrong with her testimony. Who is she protecting? What did actually happen in that bedroom?

That was the essence of the story in the courtroom drama, Silk, on BBC1 on Monday 10 March. It’s a programme I enjoy watching normally – although I confess the private shenanigans between the characters often make me cringe. When the topics creep into my areas of particular interest I’m doubly hooked. And this particular storyline was particularly timely because the papers at the weekend were predicting significant developments in the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the next airing of the Assisted Dying Bill, due in a few months, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs and peers – including Coalition ministers – will be given a free vote on the Bill that would enable terminally ill patients to be helped to die. And although neither the prime minister nor his deputy are in favour of a change in the law, the Government has now made it clear that it would not stand in the way of such a Bill where strict safeguards are in place. (Incidentally Joanna wouldn’t qualify as she’s not terminally ill, though she is in constant pain.)

Of course, opposition remains. Doctors, disability campaigners and church leaders are still cautioning that a relaxation in the law could put vulnerable people at risk, and damage the doctor-patient relationship. Furthermore, it’s argued, this is a dangerous time to consider a relaxation because of ‘an atmosphere of growing hostility towards disabled and elderly people‘ in the wake of the recession.

Is there ever a good time? Which way would you vote? Given your own circumstances? Or if you were Sarah, experiencing at first hand the impact of extreme disability of your beloved daughter, and on the rest of the family? Or if you were Joanna herself, facing unremitting pain and indignity for the rest of your life?

At the same time as this play was airing, I was reading Debbie Purdy‘s book, It’s Not Because I Want To Die. You’ll remember she’s the doughty fighter with MS who fought through the courts for the right of her husband to help her die at a time of her choosing, without fear of prosecution. And as the title of her book suggests, she contends that the reassurance that he would not be prosecuted means that she can prolong her life with impunity – prolong not shorten, please note. But, wait a minute … the new Bill wouldn’t help her either because she’s not terminally ill. Hmmm. So who exactly needs new legislation?

I’m with a certain AMS Hutton-Wilson writing in the letter pages of the Telegraph on 11 March: ‘The people most in need of a change in the law are not the terminally ill but those who, although still mentally capable of making an informed judgment and expressing it clearly, have had their quality of life profoundly compromised by conditions leading to an inability to talk, swallow or breathe without difficulty.’

What would you do about them?

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