I called in last night for the opening of the new Spiritual Care Centre at Perth Royal Infirmary. Hospital chaplaincy is one of the things that I do miss from the past – not that I’d want to do it every day. Just now and again. One of the chaplains reminded me that I once said to him that I thought it was the purest form of ministry – and I think it is. You are often with complete strangers. No history and no baggage. You are dealing with deep and difficult stuff – so all the peripheral things vanish and you can’t take refuge in anything institutional or formulaic. It’s sometimes the middle of the night – so you’re sort of disconnected in time and space. In a curious way, people and their families are at their very best – often little short of heroic. Faith? Tested to its extreme and down to the bare necessities – God? God’s will? Love?
So I’ve been thinking as I have been reading today about Debbie Purdy who won her case in the House of Lords. She said that she was ‘esctatic’ at the ruling and that ‘she had been given her life back’. Which is a sort of ironic thing to say in the circumstances – since she wanted to know if her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her to go to Switzerland to end her life when her MS progressed to a point at which her quality of life was gone.
You won’t be surprised that I think this is not a great thing to do. I’ve seen enough to have got beyond any sort of ‘peace and starched white pillows’ attitude to illness. More often, however great my desire to offer support and comfort, I’ve felt real anger at what terminal illness does to people .. seen illness as an enemy .. listened to people describing what it is like when you own body turns against you.
So my first feelings about assisted suicide aren’t actually moral objections – I can easily envisage situations in which it would be at least an understandable course of action, even if not one that I agree with. It’s more that this is one of those things which is relatively clear at the extremes – loss of dignity, pain, loss of control, minimal quality of life. But it’s not at all clear in the middle – and that’s where the pressure, not being a burden factors begin to play.
As a physician myself I am often confronted by the indignity of human suffering and the lack of clarity in our current laws.
This issue was brought even closer to home when we were invited to the funeral of a Dutch relative who although suffering from terminal cancer was not yet dead. I remember reading the Remmelink report a the time and thinking the Dutch had a very pragmatic approach.
I remain uneasy about our laws and recognise that it is not something I wouldn’t want to be involved in professionally.
Alex – just to clarify – do you mean that, if assisted suicide or euthanasia in some form were to become legal in Britain, you wouldn’t want to be involved professionally?
If you also mean that one of the arguments against the status quo is that it puts medical staff in a difficult and vulnerable position, I agree
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