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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 August, 2004, 10:01 GMT 11:01 UK
The quality of mercy is strained
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

Mercy killings, euthanasia, the right to die - the debate over end of life issues is a worldwide discussion. In the UK, is the quality of death as important as the right to live?

When Danny Bond was 20, he had finally had enough.

Having lived with a rare bowel complaint from birth which left him in constant pain, he fought through more than 300 operations and medical procedures. All but one of his Christmases were spent in hospitals.

Just five months before he died in July 2001, he said: "It's been one operation after another and one huge, huge disappointment after another and that's the way it's been for 20 years.

"I really have had no childhood, no teenage years at all. I've always been stuck in a hospital cubicle or in my own room doing nothing. I have had enough. It has eaten away at my determination to live."

It was a decision he'd finally come to after decades of being upbeat and hopeful.

"He still tried to be positive," his stepfather Mike Dodds says, looking back. "He still thought he was going to captain England at rugby, and had all of these dreams which were never going to happen. We knew at some point he was going to die, but he would never accept that, so he tried to be positive."

Danny Bond with his mother, Bev Dodds
Danny Bond with his mum, Bev Dodds
But the year he was 20, Danny Bond realised that even the most positive attitude can't always defeat a determined disease.

He decided he'd had enough - as one psychiatrist put it, there was no light at the end of the tunnel - and told his parents he wanted to die.

"From that time, I completely supported him," Mr Dodds says. "And from what I then saw and watched, if I could have helped him, I would have done."

But dying the way he wanted - with the help of a doctor - was as elusive for Danny Bond as the dream of living the way he wanted, a reality more people in the UK have to face every day.

Its a question the courts are wrestling with too. Diane Pretty, who suffered from motor neuron disease, fought a high-profile campaign to allow her to die on her own terms. She failed and died naturally in 2002.

Last month 100-year-old Bernard Heginbotham was spared a prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to killing his wife of 67 years, Ida, who had been moved from one care home to another.

The judge told Mr Heginbotham what he did had been "an act of love" and noted he suffered a "medical disorder" at the time.

Global debate

For others, like Leslie Burke, it is a different battle.

It's a matter of their choice, and each person has a right to make that choice about their own life
Danny Bond's stepfather Mike Dodds
Last week, Mr Burke, who has a degenerative brain disorder, won a legal challenge to prevent doctors withdrawing life-prolonging treatment should he become incapacitated.

Mr Burke was worried guidance by the General Medical Council would force doctors to withdraw food and drink and leave him to die.

Whatever it's called - euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, mercy killing - the debate over end-of-life issues is a worldwide discussion.

In the UK, the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill is before a House of Lords select committee. The bill would "enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably" to receive medical assistance to die.

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society supports the bill, saying that making medically-assisted death would prevent family members having to take matters literally into their own hands.

"We believe legalising medically assisted dying would mean terminally ill people would not have to rely on assistance from family and friends, thereby preventing many mercy killings," the society said.

Carers helpless

The bill has the support of Mr Dodds, who watched his stepson suffer and came to the conclusion that there should be a better way to support terminally ill people at the end of their lives.

Bernard Heginbotham
The judge said the killing was an "act of love"
"He was scared stiff that the doctors would try and treat him and fill him with drugs when he was asleep," Mr Dodds recalls. "So he asked us to effectively stand guard and make sure nothing could be done without his consent.

"For us, that was the dreadful part: that he was seeking help to die, and couldn't get it."

Yet others believe a euthanasia law could be abused.

The stress of caring for a terminally ill person is tremendous. Sarah Gigg, a senior cancer information nurse for CancerBACUP, hears the stories of carers when they call the charity's helpline.

"When someone is in pain, it can be so frightening - for the person in pain, but also for the person who's trying to help," Ms Gigg says. "The main thing we try and tell people is that there is support available and there is relief as a carer."

Mr Dodds says: "I do understand those pressures, but we never got to the point where we would have tried - or certainly in my case, and I know I speak for my wife - we never considered killing him, to relieve him. Because that's not what he wanted.

"The most caring act there can be for a loved one is to be involved in the ending of their life. It's not all about just keeping people alive. I do feel the quality of life is important," he says.

"It's a matter of their choice, and each person has a right to make that choice about their own life. I don't believe it can be made for them by a parent or a doctor or anyone else."

Danny Bond died four days after his 21st birthday, leaving cards and presents unopened.

"It's a time when you should be celebrating so much," Mr Dodds says. "Yet it was the other way for him."


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