dignity in life

At the minimum, recognising the dignity of human life means aiming to preserve it – whether other people’s or your own.

Hot on the heels of Mary Warnock’s outrageous opining on what she called the “duty” of elderly people with dementia to have their lives ended, in order not to waste resources and for the greater good of society, we now have legal moves underway in both England and Scotland to change the law in order to make it easier for people to “help” others to end their lives.

In England, Debbie Purdy has won the right to a High Court review to clarify the law on assisted suicide. Although suicide itself is not a crime, it is a criminal offence to help someone else to commit suicide, and Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, wants clarification on what legally counts as assistance. (BBC report here.)

Meanwhile in Scotland, a motion tabled by Lib Dem MSP Jeremy Purvis calling for assisted suicide to be legalised is to go ahead and be debated by the parliament. Unlike his previous attempt in 2005, when his bill failed to gain enough support from other MSPs to proceed, this current motion is being treated as having cross-party support, now that the independent MSP Margo Macdonald has joined forces with him.

But as organisations like the Care Not Killing Alliance consistently point out, the main change that is needed is not so much something to make it easier for people’s lives to be ended, as ways to support people to live out their lives in the context of as much comfort, love, and dignity as possible.

The Care Not Killing Alliance’s response to Debbie Purdy’s High Court review makes the issues clear – and what they say in terms of multiple sclerosis can be applied much more broadly:

“There are over 70,000 people in Britain with multiple sclerosis at present and only a very small number ever request assisted suicide. These requests are virtually never persistent if patients’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs are properly addressed. Our key priority must therefore be to make the very best palliative care more widely accessible and to get rid of the postcode lottery of care that currently exists in Britain.

“We are concerned about Mrs Purdy’s expressed fear of choking to death or experiencing excruciating pain because with good palliative care these fears are quite groundless with multiple sclerosis. The public is being misled over this. There have been great advances in the management of multiple sclerosis which have benefited patients and now mean that many with the disease live an almost normal lifespan. Mrs Purdy has had MS for 13 years already and may have many more years still to live. It is also not at all clear, given the type of illness she has, that she would ever need assistance to end her life, should she be determined to do so. This case has to be seen therefore in the wider context of an ongoing campaign by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, to change the law.”


3 thoughts on “dignity in life

  1. This is really sad.
    I’ve nursed many people in hospital and home with MS and other serious illnesses, what they and their families need is good care and support. They certainly don’t need someone like Ms Warnock pontificating about what them being a burden on resources. With that logic you might as well suggest euthanising all the junkies, alcoholics and cancer patients as well.

    Let’s pray that this would not become law in Scotland or anywhere else.


  2. It’s pretty dreadful, and very scary.

    Whether it’s MS, dementia, Parkinsons, Downs, or anything else – our efforts should be directed to making life as comfortable as possible until natural death, instead of perpetuating the myth that the only choice is between euthanasia or assisted suicide and dying miserably and “undignifiedly”.

    If the law did get changed it would leave vulnerable people incredibly exposed to the whims of thoughtless care staff. I remember reading about a disabled person, a wheelchair user who had to go to hospital for some reason, and discovered to her horror that the doctor had given her a ‘Do not resuscitate’ notice, without the least consultation with herself or relatives if i recall rightly. She said she was too scared to go to sleep in the hospital once she found out. I can’t really say how horror-struck I was on reading that. A nurse friend of mine has worked in a ward where she was shocked at how casually one her colleagues was using DNR notices with older patients who were in for relatively minor, treatable things. There needs to be protection afforded by the law for vulnerable (elderly, disabled, mentally ill) people in our society – not some ruthless arbitrary metric of ‘quality of life’ or ‘dignity’ that can be implemented for other people’s convenience.


  3. A couple of relevant contributions in the Herald.

    * Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon says she’s “not persuaded” that the law should be changed

    * Letter from a doctor whose family is affected with MS makes some hard-hitting points

    “Living in fear of becoming so disabled themselves, it becomes easier for the public to abdicate the role of making life better for sick and disabled people by suggesting that their needs may indeed be best met by assisted suicide. Even with the so-called “safeguard” of making this only for the terminally ill, who decides what constitutes terminal: the severely depressed person, or perhaps the severely physically disabled client who costs society more money? Both pain and indignity respond well to human intervention and so shouldn’t be used to justify the unjustifiable.

    While Margo is, of course, right to encourage full and frank debate on this very sensitive issue, there is a very real danger that by focusing purely on the negative aspects of disability, without also sharing the real possibilities for social acceptance and change, there will be a return to the social eugenics of the early twentieth century and to the dark days when disabled people were “unfit for purpose” and so more easily disposed of by our society.

    Now that many more people are living longer, thanks to Beveridge’s NHS, it seems to me a great irony that we should now be making a case for others to end their lives in this way. However bad my disability gets, I want to be living when I die, and that depends on the rest of you being enlightened and prepared enough to take that on board.”



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