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Dying with dignity

A healthy and happy life is something we all wish for. But many also want to reach the end of their life in a manner of their own choosing.
Christina and Elizabeth Alexander
Christina and her mother both want the right to die

In 2007, a poll of 3,000 people revealed that eight in 10 supported a change in the law to allow doctors to end the lives of terminally ill patients who wanted to die.

And 60% supported doctors prescribing drugs someone could use to end their own life.

But the figures do not tell the personal stories, such as that of Christina Alexander.

Christina's mother, Elizabeth, is frail and suffers increasingly from dementia. She is 93-years-old and has spent the last four years in a care home.

"It's the end of the story for her," Christina says.

Christina visits her mother every day - and virtually every day, her mother tells her that she has had enough.

"I want to go because the grandparents and all the people have gone," says Elizabeth Alexander. "I would like to go and die because there's no point. I am very old now, I want to go really."

Christina says of her mother: "She has experienced everything she wants to experience and she's known everything she wants to know."
What I have seen is that ripe, old age now means that like fruit, you rot and you die and people try to keep you alive

What Christina is not certain of is whether her mother is capable of making such a decision. But if her mother's experience has taught her one thing, it is the need to plan ahead, make a so-called "living will".

"I want now to be able to put something in writing, that if I get to the point that I look haunted and frightened, and it's obvious that my mind will be slowly shutting down, I don't want all this effort," she says.

'Wish to die'

Active euthanasia involves deliberate action such as an injection to end a life, while passive euthanasia is principally the removal of life-saving care.

Voluntary euthanasia, often called "assisted suicide", refers to cases where the sufferer has made it clear they wish to die and has requested help in doing so.

It is controversial for many reasons, particularly as many of those seeking help are not necessarily terminally ill.

Laws vary around the world but in the UK, passive euthanasia is legal, while anyone assisting suicide or death could be liable for murder.

A Private Member's Bill proposed by Lord Joffe in 2006 would have given doctors the right to prescribe drugs that a terminally ill patient in severe pain could use to end their own life.

Both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of GPs spoke out against Lord Joffe's bill.


Someone else who believes in the "right to die" is Liz, which is not her real name. She is not terminally ill - she simply does not want to go the same way as her mother.

Her mother wanted to die by lethal injection, surrounded by her family, but instead she became doubly-incontinent and spent the last years of life in "torture".

She has lots of happy memories of her mother but Liz says the recent ones just make her angry.

"She knew exactly what was happening to her. She knew she was losing control of her life and she couldn't do anything about it," she says.

"She was being kept alive by medication. She frequently told her doctor and anyone who cared to listen, that she did not want to continue with her life but, of course, we all knew that nothing could be done about it."

Active euthanasia: taking deliberate action such as an injection to end a patient's life
Passive euthanasia: withdrawing medical treatment with the deliberate aim of ending life
Assisted suicide: providing the means, eg medicine, to allow a patient to end their own life

Watching her mother die slowly and painfully convinced Liz to insure against a similar fate.

"I took one look at it and decided I wasn't living to a ripe, old age," she says.

"What I have seen is that ripe, old age now means that like fruit, you rot and you die and people try to keep you alive."

And so, Liz took a one-day "training course" with Exit, formerly the Scottish Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

She said the others who had gathered at Exit's base were "perfectly sane, reasonable people who had all seen enough and knew enough to know they did not want to carry on as their parents or friends had".

The first part of the course looked at the ethics and morality of assisted suicide.

"In the afternoon, it was literally the hands-on, practical session, which meant talking about and discussing all the methods that were available and looking at the practicalities of what you would do and what you could use," she says.

Liz says her children back her because they saw what happened to their grandmother.

She knows the idea of such a training course in the UK will be abhorrent to those who believe euthanasia weakens society's respect for the sanctity of life.

"But we are not talking about the sanctity of life when you talk about my mother and people like her. You're talking about existence and I don't think existence has any sanctity," she says.

Liz regularly attends church, and says she can see "no contradiction" in her faith and her desire to choose when she dies.

And her dying wish?

"I want to go out when I am fit and well. And I can literally sit there and say it's been good, thank you and goodbye."

Most support voluntary euthanasia
Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 15:05 GMT |  Health
The card that lets you choose death
Wednesday, 21 May 2008, 16:50 GMT |  Magazine
Euthanasia: a continent divided
Friday, 4 April 2008, 08:09 GMT |  Europe



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