As with so many debate questions, there is no clear cut answer here but, on balance, I must come down on the ‘ethical’ side. My primary reason for this is because I have witnessed Death in its two extremes in those closest to my heart. My father collapsed and died from a brain haemorrhage less than 24 hours after being given a clean bill of health and told he could return to work after two years off sick with tuberculosis. He woke up at 7.30am with a headache which Mother, with good reason, put down to the enthusiastic celebrations of the previous night. She went downstairs to get him some aspirin, but he never received them; by 7.35 he was dead.
20 years later, Mother passed away, blind and prematurely senile from the effects of 14 years of serious hypertension. She was doubly incontinent and didn’t know any of us, though she did ask how Father was managing at home without her. It broke my heart to lie to her, but I told her he was OK, but missing her. A few days earlier, when she had asked the same question and one of her carers had answered gently that Father was dead, she had sobbed uncontrollably for hours, and I couldn’t distress her like that again.
In the early stages of her illness, Mother had said on many occasions that she hoped she would never end up like Grandma, who died, aged 85, suffering from Alzheimer’s. She weighed less than 90 pounds, and spent all her waking hours crying and asking for family members who had long since died. Mother used to say, ‘If I get like Nanny Jones and I’m not able to kill myself, ask the doctors to put me out of my misery as the vet did for Tabitha (our 18 year old cat.)Surely I’m entitled to a dignified end like that poor animal?’
The answer is, everyone is of course entitled to a dignified death, but it’s not so easy to achieve this for a human being. For a start, there is nearly always someone who stands to benefit from the death of another, so it’s virtually impossible to be certain that euthanasia is in the best interests of the patient, rather than the relatives. All our poor Tabitha had to leave was a nice feeding bowl and a catnip mouse, so there was no grey area there.
While a parent may express the wish for euthanasia and ask their child to communicate that desire should they be unable to do so, this presents another dilemma. Could you effectively sign your own parent’s death warrant? Much as I hated to see my mother suffer, I was glad that decision didn’t have to be taken, as I don’t think I could have coped with that responsibility, even though I knew it was what she wanted.
Then again, how could we be sure she hadn’t changed her mind? There’s a saying that life is sweet, and I have witnessed this in other relatives who have fought, often successfully, to hang on to life when all hope had gone. The truth is, we don’t know enough about the process of death to be able to take such a momentous decision on behalf of another human being.
The only person really qualified to take that decision is the patient’s doctor. If the patient has expressed a wish for euthanasia, preferably in writing but at least in front of witnesses, and the doctor feels there is no chance of recovery with any quality of life, he should be able to carry out the patient’s wishes without fear of prosecution. After all, he has medical knowledge and does not stand to benefit. In addition, he will not suffer guilt, only a feeling of having acted in his patient’s best interests.
Death, like life, is never easy, but with a blend of compassion and common sense, surely we can make the passage easier for those who require it?