Saturday, April 12, 2014

This woman needed help NOT Dignitas

IN a week of disturbing stories right across the news gauntlet – Peaches, Pistorius, the political car-crash of Maria Miller – one dark and troubling tale went almost unnoticed: The death of a retired art teacher, only identified as Anne, by assisted suicide at the infamous Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. 

The truly disturbing nature of Anne’s story is this: she was not suffering from any form of terminal disease. True, at 89, she had had her health problems – diseases of the lung and heart, requiring spells in hospital (which she hated). But she wasn’t dying of cancer, or one of the nasties such as Huntington’s Chorea, or multiple organ failure.

Anne simply felt alienated from the modern world. Speaking days before she died – from a lethal dose of drugs provided by the clinic – she said she felt she faced a choice either to “adapt or die”, and announced she was not prepared to adapt to a world in which technology took precedence over humanity. She added that she had become frustrated with the trappings of modern life, such as fast-food, consumerism, and the amount of time people spend watching television.

“They say ‘adapt or die,’” she said, having already made the decision to take the latter option by drinking a deadly dose of barbiturates. “I find myself swimming against the current, and you can’t do that. If you can’t join them, get off... all the old fashioned ways of doing things have gone.”
Now you may or may not agree with Anne’s world view, but judging by her comments (and there were more in the same vein) it sounds very much to me as if the poor woman was suffering from a classic case of clinical depression – feelings of hopelessness, alienation, despair and suicidal thoughts.

Is that a condition Dignitas should be giving itself permission to treat with a lethal cocktail of drugs? I don’t think so. Its own rules state that it will only provide help in cases of “illness which will lead inevitably to death, unendurable pain or an unendurable disability”.

Anne’s niece, Linda, 54, accompanied her aunt to Zurich and was by her side when she died. She has said she “cannot think of a better death”.

Hmm. I don’t doubt her personal belief in that statement and I am sure she genuinely believes she did the right thing by her aunt. But Anne’s death raises disturbing questions. What if she’d been 10 years younger, say, 79, but held exactly the same bleak view of the world? Would she still have been offered assisted suicide?

Or what about 69? Or 59? At exactly what point does the combination of (undiagnosed) depression plus advancing years get the thumbs-up from the Dignitas doctors?

Personally I have always supported the principle of assisted suicide but Anne’s exit from this world has made me seriously wonder if it can ever be properly controlled.

This disturbing story could be the thin end of a very unpleasant wedge.