Wednesday 15 July 2009

For pity's sake, get involved.

ast week the House of Lords rejected an attempt to relax the law on assisted suicide so that people who accompany their loved ones to the Dignitas clinic don’t have to face 14 years in prison. Britain is pretty good at fudging and it may be that this is one of those situations where fudge is uncomfortable but useful. 120 British people have gone to Dignitas so far and not one of the people who went with them has been prosecuted, there’s a tacit understanding between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts that people who go to the trouble of arranging a Dignitas ending are not likely to be murderers. Lord Faulkner who sponsored the most recent application to the Lords noted that there was a ‘legal no-mans land’ around the subject, which indeed can be dangerous. It means that the police are choosing what they will and won’t prosecute. As it is the situation is being allowed to evolve, the law following public debate rather than public debate being forced to change the law. I foresee a time in the next 5 or so years when an individual is put on trial as a way of testing public opinion. It would be a very blunt, shortsighted move to put the Downes children on trial today when public debate is raging.

A century ago, a policeman would turn up to arrest someone who had attempted suicide. Never mind the circumstances, the law was the law and a person who was actually dying from their attempt would be put in a cell and treated as a criminal. British society, which was fairly universally Christian, eventually found this intolerable and the law was changed so that the suicidal person was viewed as mad rather than bad. But still, suicide was perceived as something that must be prevented at all costs. This remains the case today. I remember babysitting a depressed elderly man who had cut his own throat so extensively that he severed his trachea. He was caught, pounced on, dragged to surgery and spent the rest of his time folded up in a chair. Nurses weren’t there to care for him, we were there to make sure he didn’t attempt to kill himself again.

Chaplains and counselors are very mindful of a clients right to confidentiality, but should the professional believe the client to be at serious risk of suicide we are bound to break that confidentiality. Other times when confidentiality must be broken are when a child is at risk and when a client is planning or admits to terrorism.

I find it absolutely extraordinary that finding ones own life intolerable is judged to be the same as raping a child or blowing up a train full of people. This is solely a religious hangover and it’s worth noting that the 3 most powerful religious leaders led the Lords rejection to a change in the law. Individual religious people may feel that their suffering demonstrates trust in their god but there’s a dangerous madness in the monotheist approach to end of life suffering. Modern hospices were set up by religious people who recognised that palliative care was not, is not, good enough; sadly, religious people don’t contribute anywhere near the sums required to maintain existing hospices, let alone building enough for everyone. When they do, I’ll be more inclined to take their anti-suicide debate seriously.

So the situation we’re left with is delicate. I heard a man tell the story of his dying mother today, in hospital, suffering, exhausted. Her family asked for a meeting with the doctor who said that surgery would extend their mothers life by two weeks. The family said they didn’t want their mother to suffer any more. “You know what you’re saying?” said the doctor, the family nodded and a morphine drip was set up to run rather more quickly than it should have done. Everyone’s heard a similar story. Nothing is said, everyone knows. It seems to me that this is no bad thing when it comes to illegally killing a person in unalterable extremis.

Doctors and nurses hold enormous power over the lives, deaths and suffering of the people in their care and the anti-assisted suicide theory is that they are there to save lives rather than kill people. But they do no harm, which is very different from not killing. It is very harmful to slice someone open or give them drugs that will kill parts of their body, and that’s what we expect surgeons and oncologists to do. When they do kill people as a criminal act they are generally caught, as Beverly Allitt and Harold Shipman were. Shipman is the only British doctor convicted of murdering patients and 23 nurses worldwide have been convicted, so it’s not something that health professionals tend to get up to. Anti-voluntary euthanasia campaigners make a lot of noise about the likelihood of abuse should VE become law, which is a disgraceful insult to the health care professionals and the people who create the safeguards around such a procedure.

It is, of course, probable that abuses of the system will very occasionally occur. Emergency services are allowed to run red lights and exceed the speed limit and very occasionally a pedestrian is killed. Does this mean that the emergency services should wait for a red light to change and tootle along at 30mph? No system is perfect, there will always be an individual who feels above the law but, as with organ transplantation, policy safeguards and transparency will prevent the vast majority of abuse and catch it when it occurs.

Practice already embraces voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, precedent is being set, assisted suicide is presented to the Lords every couple of years. Those people who are firm in the knowledge that any positive change in the law will open the door to euthanasia on the grounds of economics seem blind to the fact that it already occurs in catastrophic numbers. If you’re poor you’re much more likely to die miserable, alone or in a crap human storage facility. Private elder and disabled care is already a goldmine and abuse is commonplace.

I haven’t spoken with one Pagan who has a theology around keeping themselves or their loved ones alive in pain. But we haven’t begun to realistically discuss the alternatives. Some of us know about advance directives and that’s about as far as we go. A small number of us will have an idea about hoarding up a store of drugs or leaping from Beachy Head, but these thoughts are hesitant, fearful or more bravura than realistic. We really do need an open debate about the Pagan approach to what will certainly become law within the next 20 years. Judy Harrow began the debate in 1997 ‘Coup de Grace: Neo-Pagan Ethics and Assisted Suicide’ an extended version of which can be found in the Pagan Book of Living and Dying

Take a look here for some different views and opinions.

What is the British Pagan approach to suicide, voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide? If Boudicca killed herself to avoid dishonour, is suicide OK? In which case, is butchering children and destroying Colchester OK? We need a coherent, intelligent debate based on 2 things: our theology, and what we as individuals are prepared to live with in order to balance our lives as Pagans living in a non-Pagan world. The vast majority of us are recreational Pagans, we take up the cosmetic bits of it and use it when we want some recognition but really we’re like the rest of the country in which we live: culturally Christian and just trying to get on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a conscious decision, it’s a default position. That’s just about OK if it helps us make choices about whether to eat meat or not and nowhere near good enough when we know people who are in psychological or physical agony and we have no tools to help; not safe when practice is moving, along with the law, towards voluntary euthanasia and we find ourselves just mooching along with it.


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