Thursday 23 October 2014

Mary Kenny: Assisted suicide is not a solution to my husband's suffering

Published 10/12/2012 | 17:00

Richard has made the same dark joke three times now. "Would you like a cup of coffee, dear?" "Yes, and a loaded revolver."

"Would you like a cup of tea, dear?" "Yes, and a humane killer."

"Are you ready for a glass of sherry, darling?" "Yes, and a chalice of hemlock."

At my husband's third request, I joked back. "Sorry, dear, we're right out of hemlock today."

Long before he became badly crippled by a stroke, we had discussed the subject of "assisted suicide", and "euthanasia". When he was in the whole of his health he was absolutely against it. Richard is an Anglican, of the mild, middle-of-the-road variety, but the values of a Christian formation are embedded. Many religious taboos have a practical application, and he would underline the practical problems of legalising assisted suicide: it's an open invitation to abuse.

How many families would find it so very convenient to bump off elderly relations who were a nuisance to themselves and others, and using up huge sums of money, too, in their last years? Most families are not homicidal: but the temptation would certainly be there, and sometimes the temptation would be pressing.

And how many elderly and disabled people would feel it incumbent upon themselves to request assisted suicide because they don't want to be a burden on their families or the community? How many elderly and infirm individuals would feel guilty just for living on while others take the voluntary exit?

Before Richard had his stroke, and before it crippled his body almost completely, and brought to his mind a Zen-like detachment – it's sometimes hard to get any sentence out of him, and then suddenly he'll come out with a quote from Dante, or, thankfully, something drily humourous – these were his views. Legalised euthanasia is a perilous slippery slope.

Of course there are compelling cases, such as that brought to the public arena by Marie Fleming, who is so badly disabled by multiple sclerosis, and is in constant pain. Nobody of any sense or sensibility thinks this is anything other than desperately poignant. But the argument, put by the lawyer Brian Murray, that "the State cannot criminalise private behaviour because it doesn't like it" is, to my mind, profoundly wrong-headed.

Supposing I took my husband's dark allusions to loaded revolvers and glasses of hemlock seriously, procured a phial of poison and quietly ended his life? Would that simply be "private behaviour"? No: there isn't a state under the rule of law anywhere which would regard such an act of homicide as such.

You cannot describe a deliberate killing as "private behaviour": although it is possible, and indeed quite customary, that a court of law will exonerate, pardon or make allowances for a compassionate "mercy killing". Where conditions have been intolerable, and a loving carer has put an end to a patient's torment, the courts almost always exercise mercy.

But the motive of the carer does have to be examined: if the mercy killing is accompanied by a substantial cash inheritance, that certainly requires scrutiny.

There is another area of nuance worth pondering: the situation when a doctor might administer a hefty dose of morphine knowing that it will probably end a patient's life. This was a not unusual practice in the past – and the Christian churches turned a blind eye to it, excusing it either under the rubric of the "double effect" (there was no intention of homicide), or leaving the judgment "to a compassionate God".

But the rise of the litigiously-minded lawyer with an ambulance-chasing "compo" mentality put a stop to that. Medics are now terrified of over-dosing for fear they'll be sued by compensation-seeking relatives accusing them of killing a patient. When my sister was dying in New York, I had to sign a legal waiver promising I would (a) not sue the hospice if she died from a morphine overdose and (b) not sue the hospice if she survived to become a drug addict.

There certainly are cases for mercy-killing – old soldiers know this well from the battlefield. There are cases when people in great agony beg to be delivered. There are cases where individuals feel they have just had enough – and I think that is what Richard sometimes feels: he's had enough of this existence of disability and total lack of independence.

But I know he would not want to advocate legalised assisted suicide because of the social contamination such a law risks. And also because he is enough of an old soldier himself to understand that life sometimes asks that we are brave, that we show courage, fortitude and endurance, and not reach for the "delete" click when the going gets rough.

Sometimes there is a demand for a black-and-white legal answer to a complex question: the wise response to this particular complex question is that we just have to muddle through. Instead of passing new laws, or introducing constitutional change, allow for case by case judgments. In any deserving case of assisted suicide, a sensible court will rule that the carer acted lovingly, on behalf of a gravely afflicted person.

Irish Independent

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