On Monday, I agreed to become one of the many patrons of Dignity in Dying. here are some of my thoughts on why I said yes. As usual I wrote far too much, so I have severely edited it. I hope it makes sense. Happy to have appalling spelling, punctuation or logic pointed out to me (thought don’t be too picky)
“I don’t feel it’s our obligation to choose for someone else how much pain and suffering they go through” The words of a nurse after trial of right to die campaigner, Jack Kervorkian
I believe I only have one life. It is the life I am living now on this planet. When disease or age destroys my ability to think and breathe, to be aware of myself, then that’s it. The me that is me is gone. Physics offers some cheer. At least I know that all atoms that are currently gathered together in the shape of me will go to making other stuff in this universe for as long as it exists, just as they have been spread around all sorts of animate and inanimate things over billions of years. The particles that make you and me have been many things before and will be many things again. They are not my atoms, they are the universe’s atoms, I’ve got them for a while, many of them fleetingly. There goes some of my skin dust again.
I find the idea that enough atoms put together in a certain way can make a mind that is aware of love, death, pottery and the universe, startling and odd, but I am glad of it. The downside of these minds and their self awareness; their ability to prepare for the winter and coach their offspring to adulthood, is that with the prescient ability to have a sense of the future, we can also see that one day we must die. It’s a daunting prospect to know your thoughts and memories will one day end In a society of so many consumer choices, there will come a point when, however much we wish to still live, our death will happen. Though there will come a time when we run out of ways of avoiding death, I believe that in certain situations we should have the choice of dying before nature insists upon it.
I have recently become a patron of Dignity in Dying, an organization that campaigns for the right to assisted dying for those who find the agony of their life too great. When I tweeted about this I called the organization’s campaign an enlightened one.
I was taken to task over the idea that a society where assisted dying is legal is an enlightened one.
I believe the desire to live, especially for those who see no glow of an afterlife, is too great for us to just switch off our existence on a whim, as some of those against assisted dying seem to suggest. Some critics commented, “there must be other options?”
I think there are other options, assisted dying is not the first and only option, but the final one, when all else has failed and no hope can be glimpsed. It is not about people feeling a bit down on Tuesday and lying in the morgue by Thursday.
I do not know at what point of pain or sense of futility I would give up my life. I try to imagine it. I am sure that the childless have a burning urge to live too, but as a parent, the idea of leaving my son fatherless makes me feel physically sick. From the transcripts I’ve read of those who have chosen to die, all possibilities have been discussed on many occasions and, with a frightful battle against their innate senses, a love has been shown, the love that accepts a family members wish to die, an understanding that that wish can only come from unbearable suffering.
I try to imagine what situation would be enough for me to choose death. I think of what I have just done in the last few seconds – I have picked up a banana and taken a bite from it, grasped a coffee cup, tasted and swallowed a swig of it, typed this sentence (I still am), inhaled with ease and turned without aid to look at the sun reflected on the overgrown banks of the railway. I briefly imagine all of those simple things lost to me. Would I want to live without even those simple actions available to me? I don’t know. I hope I might find some solace somewhere, but I can also imagine that the loss of dignity in my existence would eat away at me. I would like to know I could grasp hold of the right to die when I wished, to know that if I saw no life beyond a hell and that when all those around me failed to persuade me that I should live on, I was permitted to take the greatest decision of any life.
I have heard people say that to choose to die is to take “the easy way out”, I cannot see how knowingly ending all your experiences of your world is “easy”.
There is also evidence that suggests that mere availability of the choice of assisted dying offers relief. Knowing there is a way out does not mean you will take it.
Some say, “there must be a better way?”
Hopefully one day through our scientific imagination we will find a way.
Perhaps there will be a way where people can escape from the cages of their bodies or have them repaired or even find some way of providing stimulation that will reduce the mental torture some face when disease or accident ravages them.
For now, to not give access to choice in when we wish to die, to see people dying before they wish because they will be unable to make their journey to Dignitas, to see constant living despair considered better than peaceful death, that is barbarism.
For some, who wake up from dreams in which they run to find themselves paralyzed and totally dependent, knowing there is the option of an exit when they choose can be enough to make life livable. What right have we to make those who see no end to suffering, those who have no chance of recovery, live a life without reward until natural causes finally take them?
Information about Dignity in Dying is here
Peter Singer’s Rethinking Life and Death offers an interesting contribution on this subject
Here is a twitter discussion I had with Baptist Pastor Jon Somerville on this issue
I am touring relentlessly and at the Edinburgh fringe for 13 days here