A time to live and a time to die

Joanna Aniel Bidar

The televised assisted suicide late last year of Craig Ewert, a 59-year-old British university professor and motor neurone disease patient, continues to spark controversy.

Opposition groups in the UK have been vocal in their outrage over the manner of his death however, some organisations have expressed their support for legalising what is seen as the individuals "moral right to die".

Ewert was helped to end his life with the aid of the Swiss organisation Dignitas.

Jo Cartwright, campaign press officer for Dignity in Dying- a voluntary organisation that campaigns for the rights of terminally ill patients to die with strict safeguards, said:  "Generally people think that the notion that only God can take your life is obscure given that the reason why people are living much longer is human intervention.

 "If humans are able to intervene to prolong life then why not when it's the patient's choice not to intervene to end their suffering.

 "For me, I can't comprehend the God that I believe in would want people to see people suffer in the way I've seen them at the end of their lives.  "

Two influential organisations have been set up in the UK to monitor the government's input on the debate about euthanasia and the progress in parliament of the Joff Bill, which if passed, will enable "an adult who has capacity and who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his own considered and persistent request".

Under the 1961 Suicide Act, assisted death carries a prison statement of 14 years; however, the Crown Prosecution Service has not prosecuted any British relatives who have accompanied a patient to end their lives at Dignitas, the Swiss clinic that has assisted hundreds of terminally ill and mentally ill to die.

Several recent attempts to persuade the courts to change the law have failed.

Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, made an unsuccessful appeal to the director of public prosecutions, seeking a guarantee that if her husband helped her to die, he would not be prosecuted     

The Medix UK 2004 survey of 1,000 doctors, carried out on behalf of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), found that one in three professionals have been asked by a patient for help to die. The survey also showed that doctors were nearly three to one in favour of regulation with safeguards for medically assisted dying than they are in favour of its continued criminalisation (56% against 21%).

In addition, the survey found that 45% of doctors believe their colleagues are risking life imprisonment by helping terminally ill patients to die.

However, Peter Saunders, medical director of Care not Killing, an alliance of over 40 organisations opposed to euthanasia, said:  "What matters to us is public safety of vulnerable people including the elderly and mentally unstable who could feel pressured or encouraged to die if the current law is to be impeded."

 "Individuals have been offered by judges fair cases. The judges seem to be on the side of mercy and do not offer punishment to those who decide to go abroad to die however legalising the law in Britain will lead to consecutive danger to the susceptible."

 "Part of what we're is trying to do is make the coroners and justice bills reflect the law as it stands at the moment and then we'll be looking in the future again to change the law and allow assisted dying in this country."

Jo Cartwright said:  "the coroners and Justice Bill is changing the language of the suicide act which in 1961 was drafted so it's an old law. It's a good opportunity to have a look at these problems that are occurring in the law at the moment.

 "For example, people are going abroad to die and people are accompanying them which the Director of public prosecutions has submitted as breaking the law but   they are not prosecuting anybody, they are not using the law the way that it was intended so why not address it and update it."

The unpleasant truth that the state has denied treatment to two cancer patients Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup in Oregon, USA, but told them it would pay for their assisted suicide has demonstrated the weakness of excess freedom over euthanasia. These cases have highlighted just how dangerous it could be to legalise assisted suicide.

The UK Prime Minister's spokesman said that the government believed that if the law were to be changed in Britain on assisted suicide, then the most appropriate vehicle would be a private member's bill, and not a bill such as the coroners and justice bill.

Saunders said:  "what the law does is balance harm and no one is entitled to exercise any freedom that tramples upon the freedom of others.

Saunders beleives that a change in the law would give liberty to a small minority while putting the larger public sector at risk.

He added:  "what we need to do is enhance public care and offer more support to those suffering. Assisted suicide is rare when patient's needs are properly met."

Dignity in Dying however feels that some people receive brilliant end of life care and are still suffering unbearably at the end of their lives.   Cartwright said:  " It should be up to the patient to decide whether they're suffering or not, it's not up to somebody who doesn't know.

 "A lot of people would take the decision to stop eating; drinking to kill themselves or other people would take cocktails of drugs.

 "We have case studies of people that have had to kill themselves because they couldn't take control of the end of their lives."