Last year, I spent a week in an old lady’s home – it was just a week’s convalescence after a spot of hip surgery, but it gave me a chilling insight into the way many of us spend the last years of our lives. The home was managed to high standards of health and safety, but that was part of the problem, in a way: we are so extra-careful about the last years of our lives, and yet, at the same time, so dull and unimaginative about this passage of time. Small wonder many people would rather support the “right to die” – or even, as the present assisted suicide guidelines suggest – the right to have someone else kill you.
My sojourn confirmed to me, once again, that the Victorian satirist had it right when he mocked Victorian hypocrisy: “Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive/Officiously to keep alive.” Leaving aside acute cases of chronic illness, which certainly are compelling, the real problem with our end-of-life philosophy is that we are far, far too careful of preserving life. Old ladies who are at death’s door are pulled back with miraculous antibiotics; old gentlemen about to be embraced by what was once called “the old man’s friend” – pneumonia – are treated and cured so as to live out a twilight existence for another two or three years.
I won’t compose an advance will saying “please kill me off”, because I think it is wrong to ask other people to kill you, and I also think it is wrong to kill yourself – the writer Colette once said that “every cell in the human body” protests against self-destruction – and it leaves a bleak emotional legacy for family and friends. But I will suggest that no heroic measures are taken approaching the end of life. When my brother was dying of cancer, I was appalled when a bristling young doctor suggested that the hospital should put up a life-support machine; it was a nun-counsellor who said surely it was wiser and kinder to let nature take its course.
“Don’t pull the plug on Grandma” is one of the cries put out by those who oppose euthanasia: more appropriate to ask why Grandma should be plugged into various life-support contraptions in the first place. Don’t slay the old girl, but don’t go around so artificially prolonging her life when it is clearly drawing to a close.
Only half-facetiously do I suggest that when we reach 75 we should consider taking up smoking again; or otherwise living dangerously. Should I reach my 75th birthday, that is what I intend to do: go to Paris and draw pleasurably on a packet of Gitanes, sans filtre . (Though smoking will probably be so utterly prohibited across the European Union at that stage that I’ll have to seek out some glamourously low dive in Casablanca.) Perhaps I might take up a few extreme sports while I’m at it: maybe Jeremy Clarkson will let me go a speeding round competing with him.
But instead of encouraging those approaching the end of life to do everything at full pitch, our health-and-safety culture protects us at the double: get a flu injection: wrap up well in winter: don’t take any risks! The old ladies’ home in which I dwelt was at once so carefully cosseted and at the same time so depressingly under-stimulated that I felt deeply depressed by the artificiality of last-years living. It’s not the right to die that most of us need, but the encouragement to live until we die: and then to accept death as it approaches.
My own grandmother died as many people once did – from a bout of winter pneumonia after a life lived nicely beyond the three score years and ten. But that was before the era of health and safety obsessions, and lawyers ready to sue the medical profession for compo. A doctor who allowed a frail and elderly person to depart this world with pnemonia today might soon find herself in the dock for negligence. And the perfectly acceptable practice of topping up the morphine dose to the point where it is almost certainly lethal – the Catholic ethic calls it “the double effect” (it may kill you but is not intended as homicide) – is now denounced as hypocrisy or even malpractice. Ridiculous. When my sister was approaching death and I requested more morphine for her, I had to sign a waiver saying I would not sue the hospital for making her a dope-addict. She died two days later.
It’s mainly the lawyers who have halted the humane and sensible “thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive/Officiously to keep alive”. It is their officiousness – along with health and safety obsessions – which has stripped end-of-life attitudes of dignity and common sense. The very ill and frail are officiously kept alive quite ubiquitously: and so the way is opened for legalised killing. ENDS
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