Kill me quick
Many of us would choose to take our own life rather than linger on till the bitter end. But whats the best way of going about it? Pádraig Reidy seeks a final exit
Supposing you, like me, would like to decide when you're going to die. Suppose you're not interested in staying alive no matter what, and have no fear of being fried in everlasting torment if you take your own life. You may think that the decision to kill yourself is a pretty final one. But actually it's only the first of many. And none of them straightforward. You could just stick with the oldfashioned route: death by your own hand. But that can be immensely tricky, not to mention uncomfortable. For example, the classic gesture of leaping from a great height is, apparently, quite unreliable, at least at heights of less than 150 feet. Geo Stone in his book Suicide and Attempted Suicide; Methods and Consequences, points out that this method comes with a massive risk of injury to others, which must surely lower its appeal.
Other classic suicide methods are equally unreliable and gruesome. Remarkably, shooting yourself in the head only has an 80 per cent fatality rate; the mere thought of being in that remaining 20 per cent is too grim to countenance. Hanging, if the drop is misjudged, can result in severance of the head, not something you'd want your loved ones to stumble across. Even an overdose of prescription drugs is unreliable, as you're quite likely to fall unconscious before actually finishing the entire required dose. Illegal drugs? The chances of getting a sufficiently pure source are minimal.
So with suicide proving to be an extremely dodgy option, how about euthanasia, more accurately described these days as patientassisted dying.
The patient is easy enough that's you, but fingering the assistant could be more tricky. The UK has the most inflexible and restrictive laws on euthanasia in Europe. Aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring suicide can be punished with a 14 year prison sentence, while assisted dying can lead to charges of murder or manslaughter, even in cases where the person is dying and has requested help. This prospect may well put a spanner in your death works.
When I asked Derek Humphry, former Sunday Times journalist and founder of the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization (www.finalexit.org) what he'd recommend, he answered, without hesitating: "Undoubtedly an injection of lethal drugs into an arm by a health professional. Medically assisted suicide is better than the family being driven to put a plastic bag over the patient's head."
Humphry is not speaking from a theoretical standpoint. In 1975, he helped his first wife, Jean McKay, to die after the pain of her bone cancer had become unbearable. His subsequent book, Jean's Way, did a lot to bring the issue of euthanasia to worldwide attention.
The only drawback with this method is that to enlist a health professional you need to prove you are terminally ill. Derek Humphry sees this as unfair. "I have always maintained that, as well as terminally ill patients, those persons with incurable, chronic and painful diseases such as MS should also be able to choose physician assisted suicide." He goes on:
"I also believe that, in time, this release should be available to protracted, incurable, mental health sufferers. Some mental ailments are every bit as painful as advanced cancer. But society is not ready for that yet. It may take another 50 years."
This feeling is echoed by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), which campaigns for the option of assisted death for "competent adults who are suffering unbearably from an incurable illness" to have the option of choosing medical help to die within strict safeguards.
Of course, in the UK, it is still irrelevant whether you're terminally ill, chronically ill, or just bored. While the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill is to go to Lords Select Committee, it seems that any change in legislation would be strongly opposed by the British Medical Association (BMA). A spokesperson for the BMA told me: "We are strongly opposed to any change in the law. The role of the doctor is to help people, and the BMA feels that taking an active part in someone's death does not fit that role."
One loophole available in this country is a practice known as 'death by double effect', whereby medics can prescribe painkillers (usually opioids such as morphine), which have the secondary effect of hastening death. This means that as the death is, as it were, a 'side effect' of the medication, the attending physician is not strictly culpable for it. Many see this as an alternative to euthanasia, but it is not one preferred by the VES, which claims that death through opioid analgesic overdose can often be distressing and undignified. It is also true, and somewhat tragic, that high doses of opioids can often result in 'paradoxical pain', where the 'pain killer' actually increases the intensity of suffering. Death by double effect seems to be more about protecting the doctor from litigation than saving the patient from pain.
So the chances of enjoying a peaceful, painless death in Britain are fairly limited. But travelling to one of the few places where euthanasia is legal isn't much of a solution either.
For example, if you wanted to go to the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, to be exact) to kill yourself (maybe get a bit of whale-watching in first), you'll have to get there (not cheap), and then set up residence. This will probably entail negotiating tons of visa complexities. Just imagine immigration control: "Purpose of visit?" "Leisure, followed by a light shuffle off this mortal coil."
Finally, you'll have to prove yourself terminally ill, and I doubt anyone would go for the old 'isn't life a terminal illness?' line. Even if you do manage to convince the authorities in Oregon of your impending doom, you've still got to wait 15 days before they hand over the drugs, by which time you may well have changed your mind, or have to return to Britain due to work commitments.
So, what other options are there? The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland all have a more flexible attitude to euthanasia than we do, and may well be your best bet. So prepare for a view of tulips, some good chocolate and the Alps as you drift off blissfully under the influence of a large dose of Ketamine and 10g of Pentobarbital (the choice of the professional).
By now you may have gone off the whole idea, in which case I can only recommend you take the wise advice of Dorothy Parker:
Razors pain you; and rivers are damp;
Acid stains you; and drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren't lawful; nooses give;
Gas smells awful; you might as well live.
What better alternative to suicide could there be than Parker's ironic optimism?
|Geo Stone's Suicide and Attempted Suicide; Methods and Consequences, can be ordered from www.suicidemethods.net|
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society can be contacted through www.ves.org