Easter 2003 Column


Universe Column April 20th 2003 (Easter Sunday)

By David Alton

On Easter Sunday we throw away the grave clothes, smash the bonds of death, and replace grieving with celebration. It is the day when we reaffirm our central belief in life after death and an end, once and for all, of pain, suffering and despair. At Easter we wipe away the tears of sadness and sing our alleluias and hosannas as peons of praise, joy, and thanksgiving.

But imagine, if you will, a dark, pessimistic world devoid of the assurance that death has been conquered. In all truth, that is the depressed world in which many people live.

These contrasting worlds were in my mind when Parliament heard about the forthcoming Joffe Bill to legalise euthanasia (soon to be debated in the House of Lords).

Professor David Currow, Professor of Palliative and Supportive Services at Australia’s Flinders University, in Adelaide, and Jane Campbell, a Disability Rights Commissioner, graphically described  the implications of legalising euthanasia. Professor Currow said that five out of 8 of the patients killed in Holland via euthanasia were suffering demoralisation or depression – or both.  3.4% of all deaths in Holland are now caused by euthanasia and one in four is without the express wish of the patient. There has been a ten fold increase in non-voluntary euthanasia. Given the obsession with “patient autonomy”  it’s hard to see how taking someone’s life without their consent makes them more autonomous.

What particularly struck me in Professor Currow’s presentation was his insistence that despair and depression – not pain – were the main reason why people end their lives: “If you’re not depressed or demoralised your chance of seeking euthanasia is zero,” he said.

He also insisted that “Positive requests for euthanasia usually result from poor medical care” and that when good palliative care is offered there is a dramatic drop in requests “despair melts like snow in the sunshine.”

Jane Campbell made an equally compelling case.

She has a severe disability and earlier this year wrote a brilliant article in The Independent (ital) entitled “Don’t Be Fooled: We Don’t All Want To Kill Ourselves.”

In 1999 Jane was deeply affected by  the case of Baby C whom the Courts decided should be denied ventilation. The child would be “a burden” on State resources, would be dead by the age of two, and her life would be a “living hell.” Jane  has exactly the same disability and as a baby was given the same prognosis.

In January became critically ill with pneumonia in both lungs and septicaemia. The doctor said “we won’t put you on life support; you don’t want to live like that.” A consultant also said that if she went into respiratory failure she wouldn’t be ventilated as she would not live a full and active life after ventilation. Jane described this approach as “ignorant, ill-informed, calculating and heartless.”

Having survived all of this she says that the Joffe Bill to legalise euthanasia “will put lives at risk and does nothing to protect disabled people from prejudice.”

Surely instead of  seeking ways to kill patients we should seek ways to alleviate their despair. Too often when we say we want to put someone “out of their misery” what we really mean is that we want to end our own misery. We don’t address the real fears that people have of becoming a burden.  We simply fail them when we leave them in the abyss of  demoralisation, tormented by the black dog of depression.

This Easter we need to reaffirm the gospel of life, recalling Aristotle’s pre-Christian wisdom that “an act becomes a habit, becomes a destiny.”  Our lives – and how we respond to those in need – has an effect on the whole of society; but so does how we die; and on this day of all days we need to remind society of the Hope that lies beyond the grave, and offer them a better destiny than a lethal injection.