Last night a friend of mine died. She starved herself to death.
Erina was 74. She couldn’t eat (she was fed through a ‘peg’). She couldn’t walk (she used a wheelchair). She couldn’t talk (she used a ‘possum’ – think Stephen Hawking). She had wanted to die for a long time. She had asked me to look into taking her to Switzerland.
But then she fell. She spent – yet another – night on the floor, mired in her own excrement. It was the last straw. She cut her feeding tubes.
The machinery whirred into action. She was taken to a nursing home. Psychiatrists were brought. They judged her mentally capable. To feed her forcibly would be assault.
I wondered if the home would change anything. She was surrounded by people. She had her hair done. She had visitors. She sat in the garden drinking in the fresh air.
But she refused every offer of sustenance, moistening her lips with a wet sponge. It took her a week to die.
Erina had been a GP. She had a fierce intelligence, undimmed by her physical condition. She could read, watch television, listen to the radio, use the internet and email. Not such a bad life, you might think, even given the drawbacks?
But for the last two years (at least) Erina had believed her life had no quality.
So here’s the question. Is it right that Erina had to starve herself to death? Would it not have been better, kinder, to end her life quickly, painlessly and without the indignities of her final week?
I asked the same question about my Mum, who had Alzheimer’s. She too said she wanted to die. Of course Mum didn’t have mental capacity. If she had refused to eat she would have been forcibly fed.
I considered ending Mum’s life. I didn’t because I couldn’t be sure I was acting on her wish to die, rather than on my wish she should die. I loved her dearly and couldn’t bear the situation.
With Erina I had the same problem. But for different reasons. Erina wasn’t the easiest of people. Like most depressed people she was hard work. Very hard work.
But can you see the problem? Again, how would I have known that I was ending Erina’s life because she wanted to die, rather than because I wanted her to die?
You might argue it doesn’t matter. If I had ended Mum’s life, or Erina’s, everyone would have understood. I would almost certainly have been treated leniently.
But isn’t this carte blanche to end the life of anyone who is disabled, physically or mentally? What if Mum or Erina hadn’t wanted to die?
Like Archbishop Carey I believe we should change the law on assisted dying.
But I do not believe this as easy as people seem to think.