I have a dear friend who's close to his end – he's permanently on morphine, and ready to die. Problem is, his body just won't give up, though it's riddled with cancer; his physical distress is compounded by feeling that he's a burden on friends and family. He's ashamed and distressed, and he's asking his family to help him end it; of course they can't.
It's a story told over and over again, as parents and grandparents, and even young people, reach a point where their bodies ignore the death signal. Sometimes it's their strong constitution keeping them ticking over; sometimes it's scientific intervention. Sometimes they're in great pain; others are just desperately tired of living with a system that's shutting down bit by bit – going blind, becoming incontinent, unable to feed themselves.
I know what I hope for should I ever be in either of those positions: a kind doctor who'll give me a gentle overdose of something that puts me to sleep, and doesn't let me wake up.
Of course, doctors can't do that: it's illegal.
Last month, author Hugo Claus , who had Alzheimer's disease, died by euthanasia; and a French woman disfigured by a rare disease, whose application to be euthanised was declined, also died, under unkinder conditions. Isn't it time we revisited the subject?
Euthanasia is legal in very few countries, including Belgium and The Netherlands, and for that reason, very little proper research can be done about it. But in a study published as long as five years ago, Dutch researchers found that the death by euthanasia caused less grief for those left behind than death by natural causes, in part because, they hypothesised, the bereaved had time to prepare, and to talk to the loved one about their pending death in real terms, knowing that death was welcome.
A Dutch friend has first-hand experience of this: she told me her father chose that route, and that the family had been brought together for one last wonderful evening. His doctor had prepped her father with enough painkillers for him to get through the evening with enjoyment; the children were able to make last statements, and ask last questions. And then, at the appointed hour the next day, they stayed away at his request: they went walking in a forest, while his wife kept him company for the death.
It's a story that left me hopelessly confused. There are a myriad ethical and social reasons to keep euthanasia off the agenda: the fear that family might schedule the death of old and inconvenient members; the fear that deaths might be hastened with one eye on an inheritance; the fear (and it has happened) that doctors might be tricked by suicidal patients. On the other hand, anyone who has spent time with a person who's reluctantly lingering on this mortal coil, and asking to be released, will know: life can be much, much crueller than death.
What do you think? Is it time to rethink our laws regarding euthanasia?