It was a sad way to begin a Sunday morning: James and I standing by as one of our cats was put to sleep. There was no question about the decision. Cara was wasting away with cancer, her liver function was severely compromised, and her familiar bouncing-off-the-walls vitality had been replaced by patient resignation. The only prospect was a steady further decline over a period of days to weeks. So much for rationalization. Watching her gently subside as the medication did its job was none the less upsetting for being absolutely the right thing to have done.
The most distressing aspect of this small domestic tragedy was that my sister died of almost the same condition a few months ago. She too had been a lively and independent character, suddenly reduced in body and spirit by the onslaught of tumours in lymph nodes and liver. In one case, we could take the decision to shorten the process of dying, and save our cat from a bewildering decline and the indignity of drips and incontinence. In Maureen’s case, the law allowed no such mercy, and required that she saw her illness through to its horrible end. And yes, this is going to become a polemic on voluntary euthanasia.
To start with, I am not advocating a change in the law to allow the termination of people who are old, frail, inconvenient, depressed or depressing. All I would argue for is a change that would allow someone who is facing the certainty of death through illness to ask to have that process shortened. This is often presented as a “right to die” argument, which is about as fatuous and unhelpful a phrase as could be contrived. We will all die. To suggest that people should have an inalienable ‘right’ to do the inevitable is simply bonkers. Call it ‘voluntary euthanasia’: voluntary because it should only be at the express wish of the person concerned and with safeguards to ensure that is the case, and euthanasia for its literal meaning of ‘dying well’. The right to which I strongly object is the right of legislators, clerics and whomever else to insist that a terminally-ill person may not opt for an early exit. Nobody, whatever their professional or personal status, should have the right to say to a terminally-ill person “You must go on living, no matter how bleak, painful, empty and undignified your life has become. And you must go on not because of what you want or believe, but because of what we believe”. How can someone say that to another human being?
In my sister’s case, she had exemplary hospice care, surrounded by staff who could not have done more to comfort and to reassure her. None the less, several weeks before she died, she said to me “Just feel round the back of my head. See if you can find an off-switch”. It was a joke, of course, but one that carried the clear message that she had had enough. And all that any of us – family, friends, doctors, hospice staff and volunteers – could do was to wait for a drawn-out process of dying to proceed at its own dreadful pace. At least when things reach a critical stage for Cara, we could have an open discussion with the vet and ease her out of her illness. Why do we have laws that prevent us from treating people as humanely as we treat our pets?
Whether you agree with me or not, think about it. And while you are doing so, please go to http://www.pilgrimshospices.org/ and make a donation to a charity that does its best to make terminal illness bearable.