“Death and Taxes” was the title of this blog a fortnight ago, when I was bemoaning the difficulties of extracting a certain piece of information from a certain financial institution in New Zealand. I’m no further forward. Having registered for internet banking, I found that I was unable to get into the system because I didn’t have a “NetGuard Card”. I phoned them up. I answered a string of security questions to satisfy them that I am who I say I am. And did I want to register for voice recognition so I wouldn’t need to answer the questions next time? No thank you. Anyway, they verified that they’ve sent me the card. That was two weeks ago. It hasn’t arrived.
New Zealand often finds herself in the vanguard of human progress. Were not NZ women enfranchised in 1895? Now, they have held a referendum which has supported the legalisation of assisted dying. That makes me think we will follow suit. Last week the MSP Liam McArthur introduced the Assisted Dying (Scotland) Bill to Holyrood. Two correspondents to The Herald wrote movingly about the “bad deaths” of their loved ones, which they had been compelled to witness, under the headline banner Why I pray Holyrood will back assisted dying bill. Who would not feel compassion for the suffering of these patients, and the agony of their loved ones? Death is not the worst thing that can happen to any of us, and I am sure if my life were excruciating, or terrifying, or unremittingly miserable, I would want it to stop. The Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl tells us otherwise in his book Yes to life in Spite of Everything (Rider, 2020) but he was entitled to hold that view. I haven’t been to Auschwitz.
The trouble arises when you try to define in law the conditions under which you might legally assist a patient to commit suicide. Apparently the Assisted Dying (Scotland) Bill is supported by 86% of the Scottish public, but how many of us have read the Bill? I searched for it on line and I can’t find it. You would have thought something this critically important would be easy to track down. I do however have before me the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, introduced by the late Margo MacDonald on 13/11/13. I was present when Ms MacDonald presented its content at an annual conference of the Royal College of General Practitioners, shortly before her own death.
(Incidentally, I remember during her presentation, an English general practitioner seated on my left whispered to me, “She’s not very bright, is she?” I think he was basing his assessment not on what Margo MacDonald had to say, but on the manner in which she said it, that is, in the unapologetically rough and heavily industrial accent of the West of Scotland. I assured him that Ms MacDonald was, on the contrary, very bright.)
Her Bill allowed for anybody of sound mind, over the age of 16, who considers their quality of life to be unacceptable because of an illness that is terminal or life-shortening, to be helped to die. I have lost count of the number of afternoons I have spent with patients, some of them aged 16, trying to persuade them that life after all was worth the candle. How much easier it would have been to say, “Now, are you sure you’ve thought this through?”, and then produce the requisite forms. The trouble is, everybody is terminally ill, and nobody is quite of sound mind. Who am I to judge somebody else’s quality of life?
It seems to me that the attempt to define what constitutes a life not worth living is beyond the capacity of the law, not because our law-makers aren’t clever enough, but because no number of legal safeguards can anticipate the vicissitudes of each of our own unique lives. It’s a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle applied to our quotidian experience; life just isn’t like that. Paradoxically, the full force of the law might even obliterate the wriggle room in which doctors already move to relieve suffering. Rather than creating the blunt instrument of a new law, I would simply highlight a change in emphasis, and the necessity not to pursue medical interventions that are futile, by changing the word “need’st” in Arthur Hugh Clough’s famous The Latest Decalogue to “must”. Hence:
Thou shalt not kill, yet must not strive
Officiously to keep alive.
Talking of death, I was saddened to read in The Sunday Herald that the Herald columnist Fidelma Cook has passed away. She had metastatic lung cancer. She was 71. At the age of 56 she had moved from Glasgow’s west end to the south of France and in 2006, she began writing a weekly column which appeared every Saturday, about her new life there. She wrote very vividly about the sights, and sounds, and scents, of La France Profonde. She could be very critical of the British expat community in France. She was devastated when Brexit happened, and she frankly despised the current government in Westminster.
When her condition was diagnosed, she did not shy away from charting its progress, and even when she became very ill she continued to send in her weekly column. I can only remember one week when another journalist had to stand in for her. She was very admiring of the standard of medical care in France (her GP aside). In fact, her latest scans had showed no further disease progression, she rallied, and in her most recent columns she was able to turn her attention away from her illness. Her last column on Saturday, There will always be an England. Oh, and flags – lots of flags (I say last, but who knows – maybe The Herald has more) was typically feisty. I will miss her column.