Choosing how to die

As a 54 year old British man recently chose to end his life in a Swiss Dignitas clinic, the debate over assisted dying has reignited once again.  The media have documented, how the gentleman, Jeffrey Spector, was afraid that an inoperable tumour, growing on his spine, would cause him to become paralysed and dependent upon others.  Many people have felt that the father of three took his life too soon, and that there was always a chance that he would not become paralysed at all.  For others however, it was felt that Mr. Spector had made the right decision, and was extremely brave to do so.  Regardless of the split in opinions that exist, this gentleman was able to end his life exactly how he chose.  With foresight of the reactions, Jeffrey Spector was quoted as saying, ‘Some people will criticise me, but do not judge me.  Never judge anyone unless you have worn their shoes.’  People generally have some degree of choice in how they live their lives, so surely they should also be able to make some choices with around how they die.

In response to Mr. Spector’s story, many people have recently contacted the media, and have courageously shared personal accounts of how they helplessly watched family members die, while enduring pain and a low quality of life.  Most of these people expressed how they wished assisted dying had been a viable option for their loved one.  In the United Kingdom however, it still remains an illegal issue.

Discussion, over the last week, has inevitably compared human end of life care options to those available to our pets.  If euthanasia for people was legalised however, parts of the public still state reservations about where the boundaries of decisions should lie, and how issues of capacity should be guided and dealt with; for example, a person living with late stage dementia.  Naturally, there are some huge ethical considerations, but if clear guidance was put in place, there is surely possible scope for a suitable assisted dying bill.

Most nurses choose to go into the profession, in order to help make people well again; but for a smaller, yet significant, amount of nurses, their job is to help the dying, whether this is through providing comfort at the culmination of a natural elderly lifespan, or through a degenerative or terminal illness.  Nurses, working in environments such as hospices or as part of organisations like Macmillan, do a fantastic and valuable job; and, arguably, it takes a special kind of person to fulfil that role well.

Death can be a discomforting subject, and I am still personally unsure what I feel, deep down, about assisted dying.  I do know, however, that people need to talk more openly about end of life and palliative care, because if they succeed in avoiding discussion entirely, death will eventually become inevitable, either for themselves or a loved one.  No, it is not a nice thought, but as humans we are not immortal.  Yes, of course, our main focus should be on living our lives to the full and best of our abilities; however, a comfortable death, with some degree of choice, should also warrant some focus in bringing about life’s conclusion.