Saturday, January 7, 2012

News & Views into Assisted Dying

Notes, quotes and insights compiled while reading online about efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the United Kingdom, and trying to understand why, under the Death With Dignity law headed for the ballot in Massachusetts, “The death certificate would list the underlying terminal disease as the cause of death.” The official cause of death wouldn’t be the fatal dose? I find that perplexing.
There’s a blog in the UK named for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who argued for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, a 16th century lobbying failure that left all sorts of wreckage at the intersection of church and state.
Cranmer died a martyr to the cause but has been resurrected at with witty, conservative commentary devoted to “examining religio-political agendas with politico-religious objectives” by a writer who goes by His Grace.
The blog is blunt, well-written, and no fan of the Commission on Assisted Dying: “you hand-pick a dozen people who think as you think on a matter, and then publish their findings as reasoned and independent intelligence.”
And, “It is hard to see how the requirement for two doctors to certify a person’s mental capacity will offer adequate protection against the feeling of being a burden on one’s family, especially when unscrupulous members of that family have a financial interest in the death.”
Or, “Where ‘assisted suicide’ is impossible for some disabled (simply because they are physically incapable of ‘pressing a button’), we will, as sure as night follows day, see the incremental introduction of state-sanctioned euthanasia, in order that a third party may legally kill the terminally ill or disabled. And from there, why not terminate those who are mentally disabled and incapable of assessing their own ‘quality of life’? Why should autonomy trump compassion?”
Perhaps the best aspect of the Cranmer blog is the dialogue on morality and end of life that it inspired, with perspectives bolstered by quotations from the likes of Buddha (“This Noble truth of suffering is to be understood.”), Flaubert (““The future is the worst thing about the present”), hospice pioneer Dame Cicely Saunders ("You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die"), and Chesterton ("In my own country, some are proposing what is called Euthanasia; at present only a proposal for killing those who are a nuisance to themselves; but soon to be applied progressively to those who are a nuisance to other people".)
The Nursing Times reported on an effort by the Nursing and Midwifery Council to clarify with its members that, while the Commission on Assisted Dying is recommending a change in the law, assisted suicide remains illegal throughout the United Kingdom. The story inspired this anonymous comment: “Thank you NMC for reminding us that we are still not allowed to kill patients.”
Both in the UK and Massachusetts, proposed laws allowing assisted suicide are kept quite narrow -- in particular, they are reserved for the terminally ill. But the exclusionary aspect of this carries unfortunate consequences, which perhaps provides insight into the subsequent pressure to broaden such a narrow law.
The Mirror tells the compelling story of Tony Nicklinson, a mentally competent man left paralyzed with “locked-in syndrome” after a stroke. He is not terminal. He does not now want to die. But he wants the option, and these new recommendations do not include him. 
Other strong essays in reaction to the Commission on Assisted Dying report, both pro and con, can be found here and here.

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