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Real People, Real Lives: Assisted Suicide or not?


Saturday, December 27th, 2008 Real People, Real Lives: Assisted Suicide or not?

The whole issues surrounding the ethics of assisted suicide have re-emerged in relation to Craig Ewert’s decision to take his own life, with the help of the Swiss organisation Dignitas.

Sky’s Real Lives, screened on Wednesday, showed the moment of death of motor neurone disease patient Mr Ewert, 59, of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. To allow the filming Mr Ewert was sending a clear message with reference to assisted suicide. There needs to be more debate of a frank and honest nature.

His wife Mary informed the BBC “Craig wasn’t interested in this as his personal story, he was interested in people actually coming to grips with death, with the fact of death - I think that’s often hidden from us. It’s very sanitised.

“He wanted to use his decision and his death to demonstrate what actually happens, so that people could see it was very peaceful, that it was a rational decision on his part.”

This is a very brave step for a dying man to take. Notwithstanding the programme also highlighted the fact that the law is uncertain when it comes to adults making informed choices in choosing to end their lives.

The political ramifications are immense and from the Primeminister’s own position he says “I believe it is necessary to ensure there is never a case in this country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it is the expected thing to do. That is why I have always opposed legislation for assisted deaths.” He has always opposed legislation from this perspective.

It is also a very fair point, one has to raise the obvious question that assissted suicide can also be misused.

Equally, Dr Peter Saunders, the director of the campaign group Care Not Killing, which opposes assisted suicide and campaigns for better care for the terminally ill, described the broadcast as a “cynical attempt to boost ratings”. He added: “We’d see it as a new milestone. It glorifies assisted dying when there is a very active campaign by the pro-suicide lobby to get the issue back into parliament.”

Clearly a very emotive issue and there are very valid arguments on both sides of the fence. However we are dealing with real people, real lives and thus clarification and some form of consensus is fundamental.

In another report by the BBC (11 11 08) Oxford MP Evan Harris argues that the law should be changed to make it easier for terminally ill people to die. He further adds that more than 900 British people a year were forced to get illegal help to die and the consequences for them and their families could be severe.

However according to Labour’s Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, argued that most doctors did not want to see the law changed.

Justice Minister Maria Eagle said it was a “difficult” issue and one the government would continue to consider.

In a short debate at Westminster Hall, Dr Harris, a qualified hospital doctor, argued that 16 British citizens a year travelled to Dignitas, the Swiss clinic that helps people with chronic diseases to end their lives.

Moreover the Lib Dems’ Oxford West and Abingdon MP said assisted dying was already taking place and it would “be better to put this on a legal footing with whatever safeguards” Parliament thought appropriate.

There is a fundamental necessity to comprehend how the law sits in relation to assissted suicide. In theory, helping someone to kill themselves is a crime under the 1961 Suicide Act.

Several recent attempts to persuade the courts to change the law have failed.

Diane Pretty had motor neurone disease and Debbie Purdy has multiple sclerosis.

However, in a BBC report (09 12 08) The parents of Daniel James were not to be charged with assissting him to die. Mark and Julie James were investigated by UK police after the death of son Daniel, 23, of Worcester, in September.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC said there was “sufficient evidence” to prosecute the couple.

But he said their “fiercely independent son” had not been influenced by his parents and so charging them would not be in the public interest.

The reality for the James’s was that their son had tried several times to kill himself before he “gained his wish”.

Describing him as an intelligent young man of sound mind, they said his death was “no doubt a welcome relief from the ‘prison’ he felt his body had become and the day-to-day fear and loathing of his living existence”.

“This is the last way that the family wanted Dan’s life to end but he was, as those who know him are aware, an intelligent, strong-willed and some say determined young man.

This was echoed by Mr Jame’s Psychiatrist who argues “that this young man had arrived at his decision using clear, coherent and logical thought processes”.

Furthermore, those campaigning for assissted suicide have welcomed the CPS decision, but insist upon clarification within the law. Indeed Sarah Wootton from the group Dignity in Dying claims that the lack of any safeguarded choice forced people into making “desperate and often dangerous decisions”.

She said: “People are travelling abroad to die, there are ‘mercy killings’, botched suicides and some doctors already assist their patients to die at great potential cost to their livelihood and freedom.”

In contrast, on the flip side, Michael Wenham suffered Motor Neurone Disease. His question came from a differing perspective when he asked “How long do you think I’ve got?” Michael is determined to carry on living – and savouring every second.

His diagnosis was in 2002, it was not as aggressive as that of Craig Ewert. Moreover, “it was a rarer, slower form, which has left me more time than I would have chosen in which to contemplate my own dying.”

Mr Wenham raises a critical point when he argues as adults living in 21st-century Britain, we are invited to measure our value in economic terms. All of us get the message that we are valued for what we do, what we produce, what we contribute to society. Unemployment is the ultimate negation of worth.

Thus in conclusion, this area requires all agencies to come together and ineffect tailor the most appropriate method of approach as every person is different, with individual values and worth. Ultimately consensus is the partly the way forward on a very emotive subject.

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