When her mother was critically ill with Parkinson’s Disease, Jenni Murray became an advocate for clinician assisted suicide. She tells Standard Issue why.
Brittany Maynard, 1985 to 2014. Thanks to The Brittany Maynard Fund
It’s always desperately sad to hear of the death of a young woman with all her of life before her. Brittany Maynard was 29 when she took her own life on November 1 – but there’s a complex and deeply controversial ethical story behind Brittany’s suicide.
She did it in America in the full glare of publicity because she was determined to exercise her right to choose the time and the means of her demise. A spokesman for the advocacy group, Compassion & Choices said, “She died, as she intended – peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones.”
Brittany had brain cancer. She was diagnosed on New Year’s Day of this year and was told she probably had six months to live. She made the most of the time that was left to her, completing things to do on her bucket list such as a trip to the Grand Canyon. And she and her husband moved to Oregon, the first US state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a lethal drug to a patient of sound mind, who is terminally ill, asks for it and is capable of swallowing the dose without assistance. It’s illegal for a doctor to administer it..
The law was passed in Oregon in 1994. There are no overall figures to show how many people have benefited from it in that time, but in the past year it’s been used by 750 people and the median age of those who died is 71.
Hardly evidence of a floodgate having been opened or of elderly relatives in poor health who perceive themselves as a burden being bumped off by grasping sons or daughters – the arguments that have been used to block such a law in this country.
I became an advocate of clinician assisted suicide when I cared for my mother in the last year of her life. She died in December 2006 at the age of 80. Ten years earlier she’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a neurological condition which progressively affects the ability to walk and talk.
At first my mother shook and her once tremendously expressive face became blank, but she was able to cope with the things she loved: cooking, sewing, travelling, and looking after my Dad. As the disease progressed and her medication became more and more powerful she began to have hallucinations – imagining intruders breaking in to her room and suspecting my devoted and loyal father of all kinds of disloyalty.
She became bedbound, barely able to make it the short distance to the bathroom and expressing noisy and barely controllable irrational fury. My Dad did his best to cook and care for her. Unreliable carers, who Dad had to pay for, popped in from time to time to wash her. Eventually, it became impossible to look after her at home and, much against my father’s wishes, we had to find her a nursing home.
I was with her every weekend, watching this once bright, energetic, demanding woman fade into nothing and listening to her beg me, over and over again, to help her die. “Please, Jen,” she would say, “I can’t go on living like this. It’s humiliating and I’m in terrible pain. Please don’t tell Dad, but please, please do something. Surely you can find a way to help me die.”
I explained, over and over, that I loved her, but what she was asking for was illegal and I wouldn’t know where to begin and so her suffering went on for several more months until, finally, she was unable to swallow and died, basically from starvation. My beautiful, strong, strapping mother resembled nothing more than a concentration camp victim when she finally passed away.
Other states in America have followed the Oregon model, including Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. In Europe, Switzerland and the Netherlands have an enlightened policy on the right of an individual to choose when and how they will die. In this country Lord Falconer continues to struggle to get his assisted dying bill onto the statute book, vehemently opposed by the disabled and the religious in parliament.
The disabled in my view have nothing to fear. The law as drawn in Oregon makes clear that the choice is down to the patient and the patient alone. The religious may object on principle, as they do to abortion, but, while they must have the right to make their own decisions, they do not have the right to cause my mother to suffer as she did.
I’m sad that Brittany Maynard had to die, but I’m so glad that she was able to find a civilised environment where her right to die in a manner of her own choosing was respected and honoured. It’s time this country followed suit.
Best known for her work on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, journalist and broadcaster Jenni Murray is never afraid to have an opinion.