Sunday, 13 July 2014

Death doesn't become us - revisiting the case against 'assisted dying'


My Mum has just gone into a nursing home. It hasn't been an easy time for my Dad and I feel slightly guilty that, for reasons of distance and business, I haven't been there as much as perhaps I should. But this isn't about me visiting my angst on you, dear reader, but rather about what it costs. Not because I think that johnny taxpayer should pick up the tab willy-nilly but rather to demonstrate the financial advantages - for families and the government - of people dying more quickly.

The fees at Mum's home run to about £1000 per week, which my maths tells me is £52,000 per year. And this is a hell of a lot of money. More, I suspect, than my dad ever earned in a year and comfortably more than the average earnings of people today (my Dad retired in 1997). Again, let's be clear that I do think our savings and assets are best directed to our own interests and this includes providing care - I really do not feel that I have any right to demand that young people with big mortgages and families to raise pay more tax so I can inherit Mum and Dad's house.

But this cost - £26,000 in a six month period - is one very good reason to question the seemingly inexorable move to what is called 'assisted dying'. Now when I read the advertisements placed by Dignity in Dying I am, like you will be, touched by the stories there of people's last days and how a quick exit would have saved them suffering. I don't doubt the sincerity of the people involved - knowing their beloved brother, wife or mother was dying they sought only to make what was left of their life less painful. And they think that helping these people to die would have been a release from that pain.

It's hard not to find the case compelling. So to help you understand my doubts, let me tell you something else about my Mum. Something I wrote some while ago in a little article called, "Death doesn't become us":

My Mum spent 25 years and more working with old people in and around Penge – delivering meals-on-wheels, driving the mini-buses and running Penge & Anerley Age Concern’s lunch club and day centre on Melvin Road. In this time she saw every sort of folk – from Mr Squirrel who worried that he couldn’t (at 96) dig the garden as in times past to Dr Arnott, communist party member, academic historian and employer of a maid.

Every day, my Mum would tell us, one or more of the people she saw would proclaim – in that depression of loneliness so common among the old and infirm – “I’m just a burden, I’d be better off dead”, or some similar formula of despair. Mum’s response would be to tell them not to be so silly, have a cup of tea and a chat.

But Mum’s view – informed by bitter experience – was that not all the relatives and carers took the same view as she did.

And this last sentence captures my concerns. You and I may be good, honest folk who wouldn't dream of having granny bumped off so we could inherit earlier. But can you be certain that others have our scruples? That there is no circumstance where 'six months to live' is liberally interpreted:

...where a depressed, slightly confused, sad old person signs to say they want to die, where the bureaucracy takes this as consent and Auntie Sissie or Grandpa Geoff is shipped safely across the Styx leaving his worldly goods behind for the inheritors to enjoy.

I know there will be safeguards. I'm sure people have considered how they would mitigate the possibility of the six months rule being abused. But I am less sure. My Mum told too many stories of rapacious and uncaring relatives, of useless solicitors and deadening, rule-bound social workers or doctors for me to be so sure that, despite the agony of those stories in Dignity in Dying's advertisement, we can go to a place where we deem it acceptable to kill another human being.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A well argued piece. I've always felt ambivalent about the right to die. On the one hand, as someone with a degenerative illness which has a 50/50 or so chance of eventually killing me, I'd like the control that this would give me. On the other hand, I can't see how creating such a right would not result in at least the possibility of social pressure being put on the old and ill to end their lives before they want to. Now I might turn around and say "You can pressure me all you like, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't want to" but can we be so sure everyone would be the same?