John Inge Guardian/UK 17 July 2014
Assisted dying is an emotive subject for me. My wife, Denise, died on Easter Day after a year’s battle with cancer, leaving behind two daughters aged 15 and 10. She was 51. We could hardly believe the words of the surgeon who told us, in May of 2013, that her abdominal sarcoma was inoperable. The prognosis was about as bleak as it could have been. She was in terrible discomfort and was offered palliative chemotherapy which, we were told, had a one-in-four chance of having any benefit at all. The next three months were hell for all of us as she succumbed to the appalling side-effects of the strongest chemo the medics had in their arsenal, not knowing whether it was going to do anything other than cause terrible sickness.
How easy it would also have been to succumb to despair when the diagnosis was given. It looked as though she had only days, or weeks at most, to live. If assisted dying had been legal, how tempting it would have been for me at that stage, or later as the dreadful effects of chemo took their toll and I became more and more worn out with caring for my wife and two children and distressed at seeing her in such pain and discomfort. How tempting it would have been for me to have suggested to her that it would be “for the best” for her to end it all there and then.
Many, including former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, argue that it would have been the “compassionate” and “caring” thing to do. How difficult it would have been for Denise to argue with me if she was made to feel that she was a “burden” to myself and others. Had assisted dying been legal, I daresay the medics might have agreed with me, and the pressure on her, though subtle, would have been unbearable.
That is one of the many reasons I believe Lord Carey’s arguments to be so profoundly misguided and dangerous. He quotes a dying woman parishioner of his who whispered in his ear before she died that, “It is quality of life that counts, not length of days”. Well, maybe – but who is to decide, when, and on what grounds?
Denise’s quality of life at the time of her prognosis and following it was poor by any standards. However, against the odds the chemo did have an effect and the tumour shrank for a while. Had assisted dying been legal, we might never have had the opportunity to enjoy the precious months together that we were given as the more debilitating effects of the treatment wore off. The despair of the moment would have determined our actions. What a tragedy that would have been.
My former colleague in the Church of England, the Rev Christopher Jones, summarised my own feelings very well as he was dying from cancer. “My experience has reinforced my conviction that the law prohibiting assisted suicide is an essential bulwark against well-meaning but unwarranted judgments about the value of life and the desirability of ending it in order to minimise or eliminate suffering,” he said. “In my view, suffering is inescapable in this situation, and ought not to be allowed to trump all other considerations, especially when palliative care is taken into account.”
As it was, Denise, like Christopher, was able to emerge from the darkness of the initial diagnosis and the trauma of the treatment which followed to enjoy some precious time. As she wrote shortly before she died: “Contemplating mortality is not about being prepared to die, it is about being prepared to live. And that is what I am doing now, more freely and more fully than I have since childhood. The cancer has not made life more precious – that would make it seem like something fragile to lock away in the cupboard. No, it has made it more delicious.”
I, like the overwhelming majority of those who work in palliative care, am opposed to this bill – not on religious grounds, but out of concern for the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. My wife was one of them. I hope that as they debate assisted dying, everyone in the House of Lords will understand the effects legalisation could have on them.