Next month sees Euthanasia 2016 kick-off in Amsterdam. Despite the name, this is not some apocalyptic football tournament, but an international conference whereby professional proponents of ‘assisted-dying’ discuss pertinent medical, legal, scientific and campaigning issues. Somewhat ominously, the conference abstract strategises on the possibility of campaigners circumventing various intransigent legislative bodies that have pesky “conservative majorities”. It suggests that they might utilise judicial means, rather than democracy, to advance their aims, and talks approvingly of the European Court of Human Rights and the “binding character” of its rulings. That such fundamental issues could be decided upon in any setting other than a parliament is troubling.
I was once in favour of ‘assisted-dying’. And then I worked as a nurse on an elderly ward. The behaviour of a minority of patients’ relatives did not bolster my faith in humanity. On my very first student-placement, a man in his 60s was admitted for an alcohol-detox. When it became time to discharge him home, a problem emerged. The man’s kindly son, in the apparent expectation/hope of his father dying, had gone into his flat and sold most of his belongings, leaving his place almost bare. Social work had had to become involved, providing furniture so that the man could return home.
On another occasion, not long after I began working on a dementia-ward, the son of an elderly female patient turned up at an irregular hour and asked me if he could see his mother for a few minutes. He told me that he was leaving to go to Canada for three months and wanted to say goodbye. I, of course, allowed this. Several months later the police came to ask me about this encounter. Apparently the son had given his mother forms to sign, which had allowed him access to her finances. He had stolen everything. The police had got word of this as a result of a tip-off; the son had been loudly bragging about his ‘achievement’ to all-and-sundry in his local pub.
In a separate incident, the loathsome-darling-son of yet another old lady was, for several months, able to delay his mother from being transferred to a nursing-home. As he held power-of-attorney, he utilised various appeals and complaints so as to stall the process. He did not do this because he wished to have his mother back home, but because he wanted her to go to a long-term NHS ward rather than a nursing-home. The NHS ward would have been free-of-charge; the man was concerned only with not losing any of his inheritance. The woman was a twee old lady who would have benefited from having a circle of Reader’s Digest-loving peers to chat to. The NHS ward would have meant her spending her final days surrounded by the most disturbed and frightening of patients, utterly alone. The son didn’t care.
In yet another incident, an elderly man was admitted from home where he lived with his son and granddaughter, both of the latter saying that they could no longer cope with the old man’s confused, aggressive and antisocial behaviour. To prove this, they had kept a diary, carefully documenting for several weeks all of his violence – against neighbours, family, passers-by. The man was duly admitted to hospital, whereupon his other grown-up children had appeared, enraged and demanding that their father be discharged as there was nothing wrong with him. Ward staff, believing these offspring to be in denial (they hadn’t had to live with their father in the recent past), managed to persuade them that admission to hospital was in their father’s interests. It soon became apparent, however, that there was nothing wrong with the man – no confusion, no inappropriate behaviour. The diary had almost certainly been fabricated because the son and granddaughter wanted the old-man’s flat to themselves.
The point of recounting these incidents is to show how many vulnerable people there are whose ‘loved-ones’ do not have their best interests at heart; nearest-and-dearest who would attempt to push relatives towards euthanasia for cynical reasons. The relatives described above are the crassest and most grasping of examples, but there is a full spectrum of negative influence that might be exerted, even unintentionally, upon the dependent party; gestures belying inner exasperation: all of those sighs, put-upon irritability, yawns of exhaustion; a myriad of clues letting the invalid know that they are an encumbrance. And suddenly there is a choice to be made by that invalid – to live or die. And with failure to make the ‘selfless choice’ comes feelings of guilt. Guilty for living. I believe that the legalisation of euthanasia would be a tragedy.