Lifestyle

Saturday 30 August 2014

The thorny issue of euthanasia is black and white – until it's not

What a strange little country we are. Currently, the two cultural hot buttons in our society revolve around the right to end the start of a life, along with the right to start the end of a life – abortion and euthanasia have, once more, become important issues which we must all consider.

I must admit that when it comes to abortion, I totally understand those who oppose it. I am what you would call, loosely 'pro choice' but that really boils down to the fact that, as a man, indeed, as a human being, I simply do not have the right to tell anyone, particularly a vulnerable woman, what they can do with their own body.

That seems to me to be cruel, callous and overbearingly arrogant – after all, none of us like being told what to do on even trivial matters. When you have something as profound as a pregnancy, it's not my job – or yours, I might add – to lecture the person involved and unilaterally decide their fate.

That's why I have always been a strong supporter of the right to euthanasia.

And last week's case involving Dublin lecturer Marie Fleming who is suffering from end-stage MS certainly didn't change my mind.

This incredibly brave woman and her equally indefatigable partner Tom Curran want to be allowed to give Marie a dignified death, which would involve Tom helping her, as she is physically incapable of doing it herself.

As the law stands, he faces a substantial custodial sentence if he is found guilty of assisting in a suicide, but the whole issue is such a moral maze that even the DPP has said that they would treat any such case "with sensitivity".

I first became really interested in the thorny issue of euthanasia/assisted suicide during the case involving English woman Dianne Pretty.

She, like Marie, went to the courts to win the right to end her own life without her husband facing prosecution and, like Marie, the courts denied her that right.

And as always in such matters, it was a tiny, seemingly innocuous detail that really got to me.

Her condition, she informed the court, saw her muscles working against her.

Eventually, she would lose the ability to swallow and would therefore drown slowly in her own saliva.

As if that wasn't horrific enough a prospect, she added with heartbreaking vulnerability: "I'm afraid of water. I don't want to drown."

How anybody could condemn someone to a death like that is beyond me.

Indeed as I write this I'm looking at my dogs, beautiful the pair of them, and I acknowledge the fact that some day – not for a long, long time, I might add – I'll have to make the painful decision to accept that they are in too much pain and it's only right to let them go.

Frankly, it took me a few years to forgive my father for bringing our 15-year-old labrador, my beloved Sheba, to be put down when I was 20.

I realise now that my father was as broken up about it as I was, probably even more, but he had the maturity to realise that it was quite simply the humane thing to do and, horrible though it was, it was also the best thing for Sheba.

I still miss Sheba, 20 years on, and until I got Molly and Sam, I used to dream about her every night but the incident proves one thing – sometimes it's best to end somebody's suffering.

So, if we can do that for our pets, no matter how beloved, why the hell can't we afford human beings the same level of basic compassion?

I did a debate on this issue a few years back and watched, dumbstruck as a theologian instructed a man with motor neuron disease to "accept with grace" the path that God had chosen for him.

It was deluded, obnoxious arrogance in its highest form.

Here we had a man who wanted to end his life with dignity, to end the constant pain and humiliation he was suffering and on the other side of the table was a cleric telling him he should simply say a few more prayers.

So euthanasia is a clear-cut, morally black-and-white issue, right?

Um, maybe.

The story that emerged earlier this week of Belgians Marc and Eddy Verbessem is one which completely made me recheck my view on the issue.

As you know, the twins (45) were born deaf and lived together all their life.

Then they were told that they were rapidly going blind and there was no cure.

They said they couldn't bear the thoughts of never being able to see each other and, on December 14, a doctor administered a lethal injection to both of them.

The doctor who did it said the experience "was peaceful and beautiful, they said 'up in air' and then they went".

Now, I'm not as certain about euthanasia as I was.

Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have the presumption to forbid anyone from doing it.

But I've been following the Marc and Eddy story all week and just feel incredibly uncomfortable by the whole thing – as awful as their predicament was, it wasn't a terminal illness and should we be opening the door for the euthanasia of people with non-terminal illnesses?

Well, I think perhaps the most honest answer is that this is not a question that any of us are actually qualified to answer.

But I do know one thing.

I wouldn't have been the doctor who administered that lethal injection.

Maybe that makes me a hypocrite.

Or maybe it just makes me a human being who knows that some issues are beyond my ken. See David Quinn, Comment

Irish Independent

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