Since I accepted the position of Policy Support Officer I’ve been looking forward to being able to contribute to a campaign which I feel so strongly about. Enabling terminally ill, mentally competent adults to have the option of an assisted death is to my mind a humane and compassionate act. Having said this, I was conscious that I might face serious questions and challenges when I started telling people what I was working on – potentially hostile and certainly curious.
I needn’t have worried. Over the past few weeks I’ve chatted about Dignity in Dying with everyone from my grandma and her carers, to the removal men helping me move house. The conversations I’ve had have been universally fascinating and almost universally supportive of Dignity in Dying’s work. My grandma beamed at me when I explained where I would be working, and kept repeating ‘Dignity in dying!’ to anyone who would listen. Spending time in the care home with her since she was admitted earlier this year has made me acutely aware of the vital importance of good care and choice in enabling people to retain their pleasure in living.
In a completely different context, a conversation with a removal man reminded me of the necessity of developing a carefully regulated system for assisted dying underpinned by legislation. As we drove along the motorway he hinted that he had spoken to a hospital nurse who had helped patients suffering to die by administering slightly too much medicine. Although he assured me this was something always done due to the patients’ wishes, it made me feel deeply uneasy. Legislating for assisted dying would act to make the process more transparent and safeguard the vulnerable, rather than leaving it as something underhand and unregulated.
Although almost all of my conversations about my new job at Dignity in Dying have been supportive of the cause, I had one forceful debate with a friend working as a hospital doctor. He argued that to allow assisted dying would go against the fundamental oath doctors make to do no harm. I was interested that he felt this, and that he worried about patients feeling pressured to die, even in the face of the careful safeguards which have been proposed as part of the recent draft Bill on Assisted Dying.
Of course it’s understandable that healthcare professionals would want to focus on their life improving and sustaining role. Yet what I still can’t accept is how in the face of someone’s intolerable and incurable suffering, despite the best possible palliative care, professionals can oppose acting to allow people the choice of an assisted death if they feel they need it. This is particularly true given it wouldn’t be mandatory for healthcare professionals to be involved in assisted dying, should it become legal. Interestingly, it was also shown last year that at least a third of GPs would themselves want the option of an assisted death.
Over the coming months I’m looking forward to many more interesting discussions about my work at Dignity in Dying, validating and challenging, and hopefully changing some minds along the way