Thursday, 11 February 2010

Musings upon 'Shaking Hands with Death'

I know this is several weeks later than Sir Terry Pratchett actually gave his speech, but I felt compelled to say some things about it, even long after the event itself. This entry in my blog is an issue that is very emotionally near to me, as I'm sure it is with so many others. With that in mind, I apologise if any of my beliefs or opinions upset or offend people. That said, I shall surge onwards with characteristic tact and care for others, and dive in at the controversial and possibly upsetting deep end.

Nearly two weeks ago now, Sir Terry Pratchett wrote and had read for him by Tony Robinson a speech entitled 'Shaking Hands With Death' for the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture; although no longer on the official BBC iPlayer site, the lecture can be found on YouTube. As the title of his speech suggests, it concerned the terminus of our mortal lives, and more specifically the rights we had to ending it when we felt we could take no more; when our lives were no longer worth living. He referred particularly to those suffering from terminal illnesses; excruciating ones such as cancer and, the illness Sir Terry suffers from, and therefore feels strongest about, Alzheimers. I must admit, the issue of Dementia and Alzheimers is particularly close to my heart, as well.

I have no allusions that this is not a contentious issue; it would be foolhardy to think otherwise. The very fact that Sir Terry is giving a lecture on it highlights its controversiality. The implications of allowing those whose quality of life is irreversibly degrading to end their own suffering range across the broadest possibly spectrum; moral issues, religious issues, even financial issues. There is no denying that, despite Terry Pratchett's hugely powerful words, this is an issue that will rage on for a while yet. If it were not obvious already, then let me tell you that I couldn't agree more with Terry Pratchett's sentiments.

But at the heart of it all, I must stress that I feel that whether or not you agree that terminally ill people should be allowed to die or not is a question for our base humanity; not religion, and not finance. If you believe that a man should be kept alive until his body ultimately loses its fight against cancer and dies a natural death, then you should stand on the side of anti-assisted death. However, if you find nothing good about watching someone irreversibly degrade over an agonisingly long period of time, how can you not support such a cause?

It is easy for me to implore people to put aside their Bibles when looking at this issue; I'm not religious, and it is also easy for me to suggest people view this issue with their wallets hidden away; I'm a poor student, but it is my hope that people can see past their given creeds and to the truth that people are being sustained, barely, because we don't allow ourselves the ability to take another human life, mercifully, in a civilized, evolved society?

A common argument against assisted death is that once man returns to an age where people are killed by the state, then we are on the path to our own destruction. No man should have the power of God, only God can give and take life. At heart, I believe that we are, as a race, compassionate and good, numbed by our own society's indulgences. It is perhaps my most naive trait; my belief in an intrinsic, smothered, human goodness. But I still maintain that it is there, and situations like these call out to that smothered, but no less active compassion. If we are to inherit the power of God, then let us inherit his omnibenevolence. If indeed we take his power to end life, surely there can be no heavier burden on us; no worse task? The decision to take life in this way is no frivolity, it is no easy choice. But nevertheless, it is a
priviledge to give somebody that peace and freedom from suffering.

(That is not to say I do not think the care services do not do a tremendous job looking after terminally ill people; they are gracious, caring, and do the very best that they are allowed, but my point is it is not enough).

If our humanity, our inherent mortality and difference from whatever God their might be, decrees that we have to watch people suffer and die from as-yet incurable diseases in the most horrifying ways, then we are lost, and there is no God.

A relative of mine; somebody I love hugely, and dearly, is a sufferer of Dementia, possibly Alzheimers, and is already in a state that saddens me. They remember me, my Mother and Father, and most of their relatives, but it won't be so forever, or even for long. The very idea that I will have to watch them degrade into a world of constant mental fog, the Forever Unknown, tears a pain through me I cannot describe; it is agonisingly heart-rending to think of someone who was once so strong could be reduced to a bed in a home, waiting for the inevitable, but not knowing of its approach. I pray that something gives before that day occurs.

One of the most profoundly important things people desire, in fact
deserve, in death is dignity; diseases like Alzheimers and Cancer do more than take that dignity away, they rip it from us, painfully. They warrant that dignity; all that denying the progress of assisted death assures is that terminally ill people will never be afforded their right to die simply, and dignified.

So I implore, choose your side by looking to your humanity, not your reverence for something higher than us. There will be no answers from above. The only words of hope can come from our mouths. Let those we love slip silently away and with minimal pain. Listen to Terry Pratchett, give them the sun, music and whatever
Brompton Cocktail they choose, and let them drift away from pain, and off to darkness, or the next life, or whatever lies beyond closed eyes.