Monday, 20 October 2014

Dignity's own goal

Dignity in Dying (formerly The Voluntary Euthanasia Society) ensured that the story of retired Maths teacher, Jean Davies, starving herself to death got maximum media coverage. This 86-year-old euthanasia campaigner wasn't terminally ill, but had a number of underlying conditions. I listened to the live interview with her daughter, Bronwen, who's a nurse in Cardiff and who cared for her mum over the last few weeks of her life, on Radio 4's Today Programme this morning. Sarah Montague did the interview, which is headlined "My mother said she had had enough" on the audio clip.

Bronwen Davies was very honest - a refreshing change from the frequent fare of political prevarication heard on the programme. What had been her reaction when her mother had told her she intended to stop eating and drinking? "I was very angry because I wanted to spend more time with her, and I wanted to go on holiday with my husband! Then I realised I was being purely selfish." But she admits, "I didn't want her to die."

It was something Jean had been contemplating for a couple of years. "She'd read somewhere that it was possible for somebody to simply stop eating, stop drinking and you will eventually die.  And we all know that's true. Hunger strikers are the example that spring to my mind." In fact she stopped drinking just two weeks before she died. 

Was the decision to starve herself, rather some quicker means of ending her life, partly, effectively, a continuation of her campaign? "I think it occurred to her, after she had started her course of action, that this could be something which would attract attention - as indeed it has done - and she took the decision without consulting me or any other members of the family, as far as I know, to contact old colleagues from Dignity in Dying, to ask if her story might be one in which the press might be interested. So she sought publicity after her decision."

You've answered the point in a way, that she was aware of the campaigning. I wonder, do you think the law should be changed? "No. I have found that this process has made me realise - I mean… I'm not a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, as my mother had been for many years - and I am of the view that it's perhaps not necessary to change the law in this country, because I think if people realised that they had the power to end their lives by stopping eating and drinking - you're still entitled to medical care to relieve any symptoms - my mother didn't need any painkillers, but they were prescribed for her had she needed them - I think that, if people realised they had the power to take matters into their own hands and to take responsibility for their lives and the end of their lives in that way, there may not need to be a change in the law."

I suspect that final answer was unexpected, but it reminded me of my conversation with Tony Nicklinson who complained that it was unfair because, he said, I could take my own life and he could not take his. It was untrue on a number of counts. For one thing, I told him, he could refuse treatment for any infection - which in the end he did, dying of pneumonia.

I take the position of Bronwen Davies, Jean's brave and honest daughter. The law doesn't need changing. As it is, people have the power to take responsibility for their lives and for the end of their lives. In publicising this case, Dignity in Dying have provided evidence against their own campaign to legalise assisted suicide.

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