The Right to Die

Cushla McKinney

Script for Sunday Supplement, Broadcast on National Radio, 10th May 2005

My personal views on the right to death were formed after watching a friend die slowly and painfully from an inoperable brain tumour. It caused crippling migraines, grand mal seizures and a number of other symptoms that medication was unable to alleviate. These increased in severity as the tumour grew. Although he was quite clear that he wished to die, attempts to end his own life merely resulted in psychiatric treatment. When his cancer finally killed him, a decade after I first met him, my first and strongest reaction was relief that his suffering was finally over.

Few deaths occur in isolation, however, and it is those who remain behind that must live with the the aftereffects — a fact I have been reminded of by two recent tragedies. The first of these was the death of a local woman who, after many years of struggle, gave up her battle with anorexia and succumbed to starvation. Her family accepted and supported her choice, and she passed away peacefully at home weighing less than 30 kilos. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for her family to watch, but her mother has spoken of the peace she felt in her daughter when her plea for death was heard. That the young woman felt that this was the only option is a heartbreaking. I, too, have struggled with anorexia, and on two occasions attempted suicide, believing that I would never escape the nightmare, and that this was the only way out. Now I am incredibly grateful that I failed, having discovered that recovery is possible. However, I acknowledge the bravery of her parents in respecting her wishes, and hope that knowing this was her choice eases their pain.

The second is the much publicised case of the American woman, Terry Schiavo, whose fate became an international cause célèbre. After 15 years in a persistent vegetative state, with no prognosis of recovery, the feeding tube keeping her alive was removed, and she passed away last week. Her parents fought to have the tube reinserted, believing neither the diagnosis nor her husband's assertion that she would not want to live that way. I can understand their unwillingness to let their daughter go, and I grieve for them. That her death had to come through hunger and thirst seems particularly cruel, and must have made things even more horrific for those who loved her. An even greater obscenity, however, is that the private struggle of a family became a political tool in the hands of the most high profile politicians in the world

In New Zealand, physicians have the legal right to discontinue life support if continuing treatment is deemed either futile or against the patient's best interests. Despite the fact that a doctor can override a family's wishes, the decision to discontinue treatment is only made after extensive consultation and, if at all possible, by mutual agreement. Allowing one's child, parent or lover to die must be the hardest decision that any person can make, and I hope it is something I never have to face. I have no idea how I would deal with such a situation. What I do know that if I were in that hospital bed, I would not want my family to put their lives on hold indefinitely in the hope that I might, someday recover. Nor would I want them to have to live with the nagging thoughts of “perhaps if we'd waited a little longer…” Luckily, there is something I can do to assist those I love if they are ever in a position where they must make that choice for me, and that is to make a living will. By stating clearly the circumstances under which I do not wish to be kept alive, they don't have to bear the responsibility of such a decision alone, and need not feel guilty for not doing more to prolong my life. While they are under no obligation to accede to my wishes, I hope that it will help them to let me go, knowing that it is my choice.