In 2010, I watched a family member die from brain cancer.
At the time, I remember tweeting, in despair, about how I believed in the right to end your life on your own terms, and not have to suffer through the process of dying of cancer. I watched that process. It was emotionally painful. It was unpredictable. It was occasionally not managed as well as I would have liked.
I have argued many, many times in favour of the right to end your life, and have campaigned around this.
But not so long ago, during a discussion with a friend, and some further reflection about what I have experienced, I reversed my position.
We were talking about it during a discussion about palliative care, what had happened with my Grandmother, how I felt about it both emotionally and philosophically, and he (a nurse who sees a lot of similar brain tumour deaths) said something to me that will forever change my position.
He said that ultimately the patient is asking another, living, person to make a decision, or administer drugs, that expedite their death. And then he asked me if that was fair. No religious argument about being right with God. No argument about the sanctity of life. Not even any particular moral viewpoint. Just, asking, whether it was fair for a person to ask someone, who has their life ahead of them, to end their life.
I actually stopped dead in my tracks.
A lot is said about euthanasia being a merciful act for the patient. The religious zealots campaign on the basis of God. The proponents argue on the basis of mercy & dignity (which are still very important points). But, ultimately, it comes down to allowing people to die with dignity by administering a cocktail of drugs that kill, because they are afraid of the process of dying, often in pain, and (understandably) want to have some control over an uncertainty.
Someone has to administer those drugs. Someone who has taken on a professional responsibility to NOT ACTIVELY KILL people.
It is completely understandable to be afraid of death – particularly death from cancer and Alzheimer’s. We are also often afraid of how we THINK death is, because of popular culture making it such a dramatic thing. But on the other hand, I can also see the beauty in death being a part of life. Dying when you are really ready. Not when you SAY you are ready, but when you are truly, truly ready. It’s kind of powerful. And now that I see past my grief and reflect on it, I cannot think of a better way to do it.
Because it’s possible to die with dignity without euthanasia. Palliative Care is not just about pain management – it is about the process of dying. It is about coming to terms with death, often premature, celebrating death as a part of life. Palliative Care should start earlier, should be more intensive and should be better resourced, to put death out in the open – not be so scary – not be so dramatic.
And there is a big difference between prolonging life unnecessarily, causing indignity, and providing more support in non-intervention. More people should be supported to refuse treatment. Family members of stroke patients should be made aware of the reality that they will NEVER be the same again. Cancer patients need to be better supported to decide to not have treatment. Our culture needs to change to make non-treatment when the odds are grim an easier choice. It’s hard to make the decision to die. My Grandmother could have had 7 months of radiotherapy, been paralysed on her left side and had her quality of life diminished. But, she refused treatment because she wanted dignity.
But, just because she refused treatment and was willing to let things take their cause, is not an argument to then expedite it.
And, also, I believe that it’s not fair to ask another human being to end your life.
I don’t mind if people want to kill themselves upon hearing they are terminal – there are ways to do that. But, to ask another person to help you, is a selfish thing to do. It may come from a painful or caring place. It may not be deliberately selfish. But… it’s a terrible burden for those that have to “pull the trigger” as it were. And I understand the grief of wanting to prolong a loved ones life, even if it meant sacrificing dignity, but… the real problem is not in making the decision to end it, but rather, making the tough decisions about whether to treat in the first place.
My Grandma begged me to kill her the day after she decided to refuse treatment. She lived for a month after that. She continued to ask me, but we would then continue on with the process of storytelling, closure, nonsense, closeness. Me stroking her hand and holding her for 2 months straight, reassuring her it was OK. And with her asking me to kill her, at the time, I wanted to help. Obviously I couldn’t, but, I wanted to.
But, reflecting on it, if I HAD helped her, I would never be able to live with myself, because I believe that killing another person is wrong. I believe that state-sanctioned killing of people is not what our society should be, regardless of the case. And I believe that asking a nurse to administer a lethal cocktail of drugs, or a Doctor to prescribe it, or for a family member to be put in the position where they will live with it for the rest of their lives… it’s simply not a fair thing to ask, because you’re afraid of the dying process. The dying process is a part of living. It’s sometimes painful. It’s sometimes sudden. And, there will always be those who wish to end it.
But for me, I now have a more nuanced view. Jump off a cliff. Carbon Monoxide, whatever. Or, if you have a family member that is willing to assist, by all means weigh it up, and if the judicial system can adapt to protect those people that DO assist their loved ones, I am OK with that. But don’t ask someone else to do it as part of their career. It’s not fair.
I will never forget the day when Grandma decided she didn’t want chemo or radiotherapy. We were talking to the neurosurgeon, I wasn’t happy with it but I supported her decision. And I heard an audible sigh of relief from him when she said she didn’t want treatment. One of relief. Because so many families want survival at all costs – at the expense of dignity. The choice to face death over time is something that not everyone gets. You get to say your goodbyes. You get to slip away in relative comfort. That is dignity.