Saturday, 23 January 2010

More thoughts on euthanasia

On Thursday the news was full of MSP Margot MacDonald's Bill for the Scottish Parliament to legalise assisted suicide:  a Friends at the End spokeswoman admitted that palliative care could control the pain and symptoms of terminal illnesses (such as Parkinson's, which Margot MacDonald has herself) but it was the indignity of dependence that was intolerable.  Being me, I took to my laptop and wrote to Radio 5: 

'I have Motor Neurone Disease - Primary Lateral Sclerosis to be precise, which is a slowly developing form.  I don't want to take my own life, even though I know it might get 'intolerable' and even though I'm already entirely dependent on my wife - from getting up to going to bed, including getting to the loo, getting my food etc.  However I do not believe that being dependent means a lack of dignity.  I think all human life has worth and dignity including babies, the disabled, the very old and the terminally ill like me. 

'Ms Macdonald talks about her right to choose when to die, as do many of her view.  The fact however is that rights do not exist in a vacuum.  With rights come responsibilities.  Our choices do affect others.  

•The choice to take one's own life affects one's family and friends, whether it's in helping with the act or in dealing with the feelings of loss and guilt afterwards ('If only I'd shown I cared more...').  
•It affects the medical and caring professions, whose raison d'être is to preserve life.  To demand they compromise their vocation for my purposes is too high a cost.  That does not mean expecting them 'officiously to keep alive'.  There's a categorical difference between mitigating pain and symptoms and deliberately terminating life. 
•It affects others who are vulnerable, as it puts physician-assisted death on the menu of possible 'treatments' for disability, degenerative illness and even extreme old age.  

'We need instead to assert loudly and repeatedly that being fed with a spoon, being dressed and, yes, having your nappy changed is NOT undignified - whatever your age.  And we need to say that those who do the feeding, dressing and bottom-wiping are showing the best and most costly of human qualities, love and real compassion. We need to be society which honours them and their actions.  

'I have no illusions my own dying will be easy, but, personally, I want to pass on a truly compassionate and humane society to my children and grandchildren.  Legalising an easy exit might be an attractive option for myself and others like me, but I care even more about the sort of world I’d leave behind.  I’d like it to be one where no one is disposable and every life is valuable.'  

My email wasn't read out, but to give the BBC their due they did telephone and decided that my voice too slow and slurred for a quick interview - which was a shame as all the personal 'stories' were on the other side.  I really think we do need to affirm the dignity of interdependence.  Our cult of independence is profoundly harmful and unnatural.


  1. May God give you continuing strength in your inspiring campaign.

  2. Good for you, Michael - but how lucky you are that you can still fire off these missives! In your position I think I would only want to free my wife from what would seem to me to be the unbearable chores of looking after me - not reason enough, I suppose. And all these CHOICES you mention in your letter to Radio % : how is the book coming along?

  3. interesting thoughts Michael, doe,s the individual have the right to decide when its time?. When is the right time, is that person down and depressed at that moment. I personally live day by day, and exept that you have down days. In the final analassis it comes down to the individuals personal choice, and that by nature has to be selfish.

  4. Thanks for these comments.

    D, I suppose you're right that it's a campaign, though I've always tried to avoid being a 'militant', and actually even campaigning. I just feel that there IS a pro-euthanasia lobby which likes to give the impression that EVERYONE with a terminal illness wants an early exit. And that just ain't true. If someone doesn't say so, then the argument's lost by default.

    But, Brian, you are entirely right that I'm lucky still to be be able to fire off these missives. I'm REALLY aware of how well off I am compared to the majority of people with MND. Your point about the burden on the carer is well made. I've just discussed it with Jane, who commented that it's all right when your help is doing some good, but that it's really hard when your efforts don't help. I can understand that, and of course that must become increasingly the case as the patient nears the end. We're not there yet, so perhaps I shouldn't comment. But I still would not want to ask Jane to go against all her instincts and help me commit suicide.

    Like you, Norman, I live from day to day. Yes, of course I have 'down' days. I also have lovely days, like last Monday or even yesterday.... Depression's one reason for being cautious about deciding to end it all. One of the most helpful thoughts I had after diagnosis was, 'Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.' I suppose I've held on to that ever since, and so far I've come out on the other side of all the bad days!
    'In the final analysis it comes down to the individuals personal choice, and that by nature has to be selfish.' I don't think I ever heard anyone put it more starkly and pithily than that. And I suppose for me, that's the bottom line - do I, Michael Wenham, want my last act to be essentially selfish? I know, when it comes to it, it'll be a huge struggle. Maybe that's why I keep returning to it.

  5. Oh, and by the way, Brian, my book is progressing slowly at the moment. I'm in (related) reading phase. The next Wenham book coming out is by my brother, David, 'Was Jesus really God? The Gospel according to Paul' - which is an answer to Philip Pullman's forthcoming fanciful debunking job.

  6. Glad you're not rushing the book! I've been writing one for nigh on 40 years, provisionally titled "I am a Catholic - what an Anglican believes"
    but I keep changing my mind!

  7. Thought you might be interested in this article which makes very similar points to your e-mail.