….but we are all fabulous.
Debbie Purdy died yesterday after a year in a Marie Curie hospice. She had primary progressive multiple sclerosis and became well known for her right-to-die campaigning which resulted in the landmark ruling which led to guidelines being published laying out when a loved one might be prosecuted for assisting someone to die.
Ms Purdy wanted to end her life because “It’s painful and it’s uncomfortable and it’s frightening and it’s not how I want to live. If somebody could find a cure for MS I would be the first person in line. It’s not a matter of wanting to end my life, it’s a matter of not wanting my life to be this.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-25741005)
In the end, because of the law in this country criminalising assisted dying and because of the challenges associated with travelling to Dignitas, she entered a hospice in December 2013 and started to refuse food. This proved harder and more painful than she realised and it took her a whole year to die. In July 2014, in her final interview with BBC Look North, Ms Purdy said: “It’s been so much more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s a lot more painful than I thought and Marie Curie aren’t prepared to make it easy for me. They are prepared to support me and help me with pain medication and so on. But if I give in at any point and say ‘I want something to eat or drink’… they’re not prepared to not give me food or drink and that means I’ve got to be a lot stronger and more motivated.
“One weak moment can put me back a week.”
She went on to say “I haven’t been out of bed in two and a half years because I can’t sit up properly without feeling very sick. I can’t see properly any more, I can’t use the computer too much, my voice recognition system keeps not recognising my voice now – which is limiting – and to disagree with me is to condemn me to 30 years of this.”
I repeat her words here because they express so eloquently the unimaginable position she was in. This combined with the pictures of her looking emaciated towards the end of her life as a result of the only method she had for ending her own life fill me with horror.
Our culture favours and even celebrates individualism, offering a host of individual choices and freedoms which we take for granted – what to wear, what to eat, where to live, what job to do, which religion, if any, to follow, whether to have a home birth or a hospital birth, who to have sex with, who to marry, where to go on holiday, what to watch on television, which hospital to attend for treatment, the right to free speech, even if it’s controversial. We allow choice in almost every aspect of life but apparently none when it comes to death.
Contrast Ms Purdy’s experience with that of Brittany Maynard earlier this year. Ms Maynard was a 29 year old with a terminal brain tumour who moved to Oregon, one of the 3 states in the US which has a Death with Dignity Law. She was able to choose the day that she died and when she did, she was with the people she loved most having been able to live as she wished in the weeks leading up to her death.
Contrast it further with a beloved pet which is dying and in pain. We routinely comfort bereaved pet-owners who have had their animal put down with the idea that at least their pet is no longer suffering. Most of us wouldn’t contemplate allowing it to suffer for a whole year in fact the RSPCA would be called in if we did.
I understand that hastening ones death, whether it be through suicide, assisted suicide, assisted dying or euthanasia, is a controversial issue. I am familiar with both sides of the argument, but I can’t help feeling that it is our collective terror at the thought of dying that prevents us from moving forward with this. All the choices we chase in life seem to me to be a way of helping us forget that ultimately we will die. Yet despite our collective terror, do we really have the right to withhold a humane and dignified death from those people who have looked at life and looked at death and decided that for them death is preferable?