Last week’s media’s coverage of the ‘socialite’ who died ‘after refusing treatment over fears of old age’ finally got to me. Commentary on this woman’s refusal to accept more dialysis seemed unremitting – it went on through to last weekend. Each new article I read seemed either censorious or missed the point that was shouting at me.
This was not a case of assisted suicide or the ‘right to die’. It was about a modern medical intervention (dialysis for kidney failure – which, without a kidney transplant, a patient may be dependent for the rest of his or her life) and the right of an adult individual to refuse it.
The judge, who reluctantly refused University College Hospital’s bid to enforce dialysis on this lady (which they said would lead to recovery) on the grounds she had not the mental capacity to refuse treatment, set the censorious tone. He patently did not approve of her. She was a socialite who had had four husbands and a champagne lifestyle.
Though Mr Justice MacDonald sanctioned the woman’s decision to refuse treatment on the legal grounds that it was not beyond her mental capacity, he commented his ruling might be considered unwise or even immoral. Her reason for choosing death over dialysis was that she did not want to become ‘old, poor and ugly, having devoted her life to men and looks’. Perhaps she should have supplied more socially commendable reasons?
So for her moral turpitude and vanity – which may or may not have truly reflected her reasons for choosing death over treatment – she was doubly condemned. For being shallow and selfish in the first place and for having shallow and selfish reasons for refusing help to survive. Did they know her? And anyway how dare they judge her character? If we were to put everyone in the stocks for their lifestyles or values we would not be able to negotiate the highways.
How does anyone know that this was the totality of the feelings of a very sick woman or of her reasons for wanting to accept the consequences of her own actions, rather than persisting with treatment given the fairly dramatic odds (whatever UCH claimed) against recovery?
Do you have to be a Christian Scientist today to reject medical intervention or treatment? Do we have to suffer the aspersion of mental incapacity cast on us if we think illness not worth battling or that we do not believe that every medical intervention is for us? Do you have to have written a living will not to be given treatment? As we know from the case of Neon Roberts and the case of Ashya King, parents have no power against the combined forces of the medical profession, the judiciary and the European Arrest Warrant. The State determines the medical fate of the child.
Today it seems we have to comply with an assumption that everyone wants to live for ever regardless, however much we might have worn out our bodies or shot up our kidneys and livers. The message is that it is fine – indeed our right – to accept dialysis, kidney and liver transplants, whatever our state of health and being. Yet medics – in my personal experience – do not always tell the whole truth about the consequences of operations which leave only them feeling good about themselves.
Then comes a ‘socialite’ who says no and bucks the system. What audacity! She has to be taught a lesson for upsetting the general convention that ‘doctor always knows best’. Has she not now been well and truly punished for, in effect, saying it’s my life you propose to play with, not yours?
Thank goodness she has not had to read of her public humiliation in the press, which began before it was known she had already died.
She would have had the right to feel bitterly hurt and angry. What she decided could equally have been viewed as courageous and selfless – not to carry on being burden to herself, her family or to society. And may be it was indeed her finest hour in a life that had become increasingly troubled.
It was not viewed that way. No chance. The very idea that nature should take its course is an anathema to a medical profession whose business increasingly is to sustain ill health and medical dependency and which regards itself as the arbiter of life and death. Is there within it I wonder any respect left for the individual to decide that their time is up, that they have shot their bolt, or that they have no energy or will left to fight the fight?
This lady could not win. Her decision was condemned in the branding of her as a ‘socialite’, trashing her life at one and the same time. I feel for her family who, too, deserve more compassion.
Commentators have used the story every which way round – to warn against assisted suicide, to say ‘we all have a right to say that life is not worth living’, to bemoan the treatment of ageing women by society, and to condemn a society ‘obsessed with money, self and sex’, that failed to help this troubled woman earlier in her life.
Each of these points has been well made.
But each misses the fundamental point. This was not about morals or feminism or even rehab. If it was about any right, it was not the right to die, but the right to resist the oppression of the modern state and its orthodoxies that would forbid us, as individuals, from saying I have shot my bolt and I accept the consequences – from letting us allow nature to take its course.
Is it not for us, as individuals, to ‘know’ when our time is up, to put ourselves into God’s hands rather than those of a doctor or a judge?
And should someone who can only articulate that in the language of old age, loneliness, poverty and loss of looks be condemned for it?
Or do we all have to play the part of modern heroes and heroines fighting whatever illness and debility that comes our way, the struggle so loved by journalists, whatever the cost to us, when in truth we lack the strength and will to withstand the vicissitudes of medical interventions?
I hope not.