Hugh Reilly: We shouldn’t deny assisted suicide

The late Margo MacDonald campaigned on behalf of the terminally ill. Picture: Esme Allen
The late Margo MacDonald campaigned on behalf of the terminally ill. Picture: Esme Allen
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It’s already done on a nod and a wink basis but it’s high time we had some form of legal provision on assisted suicide, writes Hugh Reilly

FOR a thankfully brief period of my life I was PC D373, a member of the Strathclyde posse attempting to pacify the badlands of Easterhouse. In a classic case of out of the frying pan on a low peep and into a somewhat raging inferno, I was posted to Blackhill Police Station. At one time, the infamous station had been a funeral parlour but, alas, advances in medical science had killed that hitherto thriving business. One evening, while performing as duty bar officer, tear-filled children ran into the station coddling an almost lifeless dog, a hit-and-run victim.

My sergeant, a former crofter who knew a thing or two about animals – and even more about filling out EU farming subsidy application forms – examined the animal and pronounced his tad callous diagnosis to the weeping throng: “This one won’t be chasing cars again, it’s a goner.” It took much persuasion on my part to convince my line manager that calling an admittedly expensive vet was preferable to his planned, no-frills, mercy killing of the mongrel by way of a frenzied backroom baton-clubbing. An hour later, the hired assassin, sorry, veterinary surgeon, duly arrived. He gathered some loose skin around the canine’s neck and injected a deadly dose of chemicals. Eerily, its eyes opened brightly for an instant as if to take one last look at the world it was leaving. The closing of its eyes signalled its immediate departure.

My dad wasn’t so lucky. Being human, he, unlike other mammals, was forced to endure intolerable suffering in the final months of his existence. Although his body was riddled with painful cancer, he fought to maintain his dignity. A combination of his deadly illness and the drugs used to ameliorate his discomfort rendered him doubly incontinent. He refused, however, to wear adult nappies, manfully striving to arise from his sick bed and struggle to the toilet some ten yards distant.

One day, I heard a loud thump and I knew he’d fallen, once more, on to the unforgiving carpeted concrete floor of our jerry-built council house. When I put him back into his bed, he said almost inaudibly: “I want to die, I can’t take this any more.”

A few days later, his doctor, on a regular visit to jab morphine into the living cadaver that passed for my dad, told us that father only had hours to live. His prognosis was spot-on, my dad dying shortly after receiving that final dose. I am totally convinced that the GP over-medicated my father to end his agony. I sincerely thank him.

Unofficial euthanasia that has brought welcome relief to terminally ill patients who wished to sign off gracefully is a fact of life. According to the 1961 Suicide Act, it remains a criminal offence carrying up to 14 years in jail to help someone increase the workload of crematoria employees. However, in England, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines that made clear that anyone who assisted a loved one to die while “acting out of compassion” was unlikely to be charged. Since then, around 90 such cases have been examined and no-one prosecuted.

Why do our Scottish legislators continue to allow assisted suicide to be performed on a nod and a wink basis rather than legalise the right to die? For one thing, despite the patently secular nature of modern society, our politicians still fear upsetting religious vested interests. It’s outrageous that, in 2014, our decision-makers still kow-tow to the minority of citizens who support the supernatural industry.

If cult-followers – be they Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon or Moonie – desire to wait until their expiration date is confirmed by their indubitably capricious deity, believe me, I have no problem with that. Indeed, it fills my heart with wonderment that those who consider resurrection to be an undeniable truth perceive death not to be a curtain call, more a pesky intermission before a repeat virtuoso performance. To be fair, however, their view has less credence than trekkies awaiting the second coming of Captain Kirk.

In my opinion, those of us burdened with critical faculties who unhelpfully place faith in reason and logic must be permitted to make our own decisions, including the right to die with dignity. Enlightened parts of the world are leading the way. In Europe, probably much to the chagrin of Ukip, euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In America, the dyke against self-appointed death has been breached by Washington, Vermont, New Mexico, Montana and Oregon. Atheism is gaining traction in the USA and it’s only a matter of time before more states give their citizenry the ultimate freedom, choosing the hour to walk into the night.

Well-meaning apologists, or more correctly, society’s masochists, cite palliative care as the superior choice for those afflicted with tumour-induced torture or, for that matter, motor neurone disease misery. Hospices, they say, are happy places. Having lived thus far to the ripe old age of almost 58, I’ve been blessed by the number of opportunities I’ve had to experience first-hand the tremendous work done by staff at Marie-Curie and other end-of-life institutions. However, in every case, no temporary service-user I encountered ever expressed a yearning to turn the mini-break booking into a long-stay reservation.

In Scotland, Doctors for Assisted Suicide recently gave its views to the health and sport committee of the parliament, part of the second attempt to pass the Assisted Suicide Bill, originally proposed by the late Margo MacDonald. We are living in an age when, by dint of chemicals and technology, nature has been thwarted in taking its usual course. For me, it’s an outrage that mentally competent individuals who crave to push the checkout-cart button of life are denied this basic human right.

It’s the start of a slippery slope, say those who revel in the sight of unmentionable human suffering. But it is quality of life, not quantity of life, that matters. When, not if, my time comes, it is my earnest wish that I’m not lying in a hospital bed with a feeding peg pierced through my navel and a tube protruding from my left nostril. With my dying breaths, I will compel visitors, two to a bed no doubt, to push a pillow against my contorted countenance rather than endure unnecessary ongoing torment. The very least I deserve is to be treated like a dog.