When a ‘right to die’ becomes a ‘duty to die’ - Stuart Weir

Picture a Strathclyde hospital lift, already crammed with people, when the doors part and a woman rather ambitiously attempts to squeeze in. As everyone shuffles awkwardly to accommodate their latest fellow occupant, a loud proclamation bellows out from somewhere at the back of the enclosed space: “This lady! She cared for my wife when she was dying!”

Stuart Weir, national director of CARE for Scotland
Stuart Weir, national director of CARE for Scotland

The startling announcement signalled that the woman was worthy of particular recognition. The lady, a retired matron and founder of the local hospice, later recounted to me how the experience was a touching reminder to her of the significant impact of attending to the bespoke needs of each person referred for palliative care at the end of their lives.

Even years on, people remembered – to the extent that in this case, a man was not going to miss his opportunity to declare appreciation for the care shown to his loved one amongst a confined group of strangers. The power of compassionate care for a person suffering at the end of life is surely illustrated by this incident, and thousands of others up and down the country.

In Clackmannanshire I was reminded of the powerful effect that nursing for a dying person can also have on a care giver. Following a speech I delivered on the dangers of Liam McArthur MSP’s proposed assisted dying Bill, a woman approached me and took my hand affectionately. I had no idea what was coming next.

The woman had recently been through the most difficult two-year period caring for her husband with Motor Neurone Disease. She went on to tell me, as her eyes filled up with tears, that she proudly nursed him herself throughout until the day that he eventually died. Talk about marriage “in sickness and in health”!

Without heeding these testimonies we can forget the unmatchable dignity that is conferred upon a person when they are attentively cared for to the very end of life. It is a care that bestows value and love upon a person and testifies to them that they are worthy of the time and attention it takes to attend to their needs.

This is one of many reasons we must resist calls to introduce assisted dying. It would inject mistrust into the relationship between patients and their carers and the wider family who witness the end of life. How can a patient be sure that their doctor is wholly committed to their treatment and care if the law demands that they offer lethal drugs as a response to it? Drugs that are shown to cause suffering to people, including a long and uncomfortable death.

There is also the risk of pressures being brought to bear on vulnerable people to end their lives. We know that in jurisdictions like Oregon that allow physician assisted suicide, requests for death are made due to the terminally ill feeling like a “burden” on family or society. A ‘right to die’ for some becomes a duty to die for others.

Instead of going down this decidedly dark path, we must ensure that every person has access to the high-quality end of life care that a compassionate and modern society should demand.

Stuart Weir, National Director of CARE for Scotland

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