We must value life – and protect the vulnerable

This week former palliative care nurse Gill Pharaoh took her own life at the age of 75 at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, despite being in reasonable health, not wishing to face the same struggles of old age she had witnessed in working life. When I started this blog, one of the aims I had in mind was to set out my own perspective on the political issues faced by our nation. This post was originally written in response to an entirely different story over a month before news broke regarding this case, but in view of the debate over euthanasia that Gill Pharaoh’s story has started, it feels appropriate to add my voice to the debate.

A bill on so-called ‘Assisted Dying’ was tabled by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer last year, and despite defeat is set to be reintroduced. At present it is illegal for a medical practitioner to assist a person in taking their own life, and (for good reasons) no family wishes to be the test case into whether the state would prosecute a family member who assisted their relation in taking their life.

The debate is heavily influenced by the fact that Belgium has not only legalised euthanasia for elderly citizens who have a terminal or debilitating illness, but has removed the age restriction entirely, thus making it possible for children with serious illnesses to undergo the same treatment. It means that we do not have to speculate on hypothetical scenarios, but have actual instances from real life to attempt to understand the very real pain, difficulty, and discomfort this issue brings.

I was provoked to write this particular post off the back of a news article, reporting that a 24 year old woman suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts was to be recommended for euthanasia by Belgian doctors. While we should of course take care to thoroughly research the news report for factual accuracy, this case struck a powerful chord with me for the implications, if it is true.

Last Easter, my GP diagnosed me with persistent low mood, and borderline depression. It was a crucial step forward for me, as I had not grasped exactly how mental illness worked – that it isn’t purely due to your circumstances, and that it does have a very real physical impact on your health and energy levels. Knowing that I was vulnerable to low mood has enabled me to know that what I feel from time to time isn’t the normal me, and to have coping strategies. I got through that time, and still do, with the love and support and encouragement of my family, my friends, and my church.

What was also crucial however, is that there was no doubt in the minds of the NHS practitioners that they could help me, and wanted to help me. My first assessment was over the telephone, and the immediate reaction of the GP was “We should definitely get you in for a proper examination – you sound like you need help.” From that point on there was clarity and support – a clear explanation of what options were open to me, and a recommendation and referral to a specialist unit (Oxfordshire Mind) who offered specific treatment for the symptoms I was facing.

During the process, they also asked questions that startled me at the time, but make clear sense with hindsight. I was asked if I had considered harming myself or others, had actually harmed myself or others, or had considered taking my own life. It is a tragic truth that for many who need this service, all of these are practical possibilities. And I am thankful that as I worked through this, the motivation of the medical practitioners was to value life – to offer hope to those who were feeling hopeless. I had black days then, and still sometimes have days which feel hopeless – I know what it is like to feel vulnerable. And it very much frightens me to imagine someone like me not being encouraged that life is worth living in the same circumstance.

I appreciate that euthanasia is a highly emotive and sensitive topic, and we do not do the persons most directly involved in the consequences of the debate any justice when we retreat to bipolar platitudes. But as the debate returns to Parliament in our nation, I would begin the debate by saying that no legislation can ever be permitted in this country that would disadvantage the vulnerable. If the recent Belgian case is true, it is not merely an appalling and shocking abuse of human rights, but a gross perversion of the medical profession. Mental illness can be as much a physical affliction as any debilitating disease, but there is absolutely no way a patient suffering from a mental illness can be deemed in a right state of mind to take such a decision. I know from my own experience that the thoughts I have thought in my darkest moments make absolutely no sense when the dark cloud lifts – and our motivation must always be passionately and determinedly to value life – the most basic human right of all.

There is good reason why we should bear this in mind as the Euthanasia Bill returns to Parliament. Several MPs who voted to legalise abortion in the UK in 1968 (including Margaret Thatcher) regretted their decision many years later – not because they thought their logic was wrong at the time, but because they did not believe that abortion would become as widespread as it subsequently turned out. I am opposed to the ending of life on principle, but even more than that, I think it would be a grave disjustice if our legislators passed a law that meant the life of a vulnerable person was now in very real danger.

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