Friday, 12 December 2008

Craig Ewart, dying with dignity

Hamlet: To be, or not to be - that is the question;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep -
No more - and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consumation
Devoutly to be wished. To die - to sleep -
To sleep - perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause [...]
[...] Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all [...]

The case of Craig Ewart, 59, a former university lecturer from Yorkshire, England, has raised a stormy debate in Great Britain. Ewart took his own life at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. He swallowed a handful of tablets and turned off his own oxygen supply. There was no-one forcing him to do this. It was his free decision. It was his own life that he himself was ending.
Phil Willis, the Member of Parliament for Ewart's constituency in Yorkshire is reported, in The Northern Echo, to have said: I don't believe anyone has the right to take their own life.
What Mr Willis and his ilk believe is naive in the extreme and irrelevant. People have always taken their own lives and will doubtless continue to do so. Mr Willis might like to consider the situation in countries such as Roman Catholic Austria where any discussion of suicide is conveniently swept under the nearest church doormat. In these types of societies persons determined to take their own lives often have do so in a way designed to protect their families from the stigma attached to suicide; for example by crashing their car at high speed. Unfortunately this tactic all too often results in the deaths or serious injury of innocent persons who happen to be in the vicinity.
Presumably, as Mr Willis ruminates it, it is better for potential suiciders in his constituency to consider the use of tried and tested methods like blasting one's teeth into the bedroom ceiling with a double-barrelled shotgun or cutting into one's jugular in the bathtub. Never mind about the shock and trauma this will cause to family and friends. Or about the mess that somebody else will have to come and clean up.
Far better then, than all this hypocrisy, would be to provide the terminally ill patient whose mind and body is in rapid decline, after appropriate discussion with doctor and family, the opportunity to end his own life with dignity and to depart with his mind at peace with the world; leaving one's nearest and dearest with no fardels to bear.
One of several advantages that the Dignitas method of taking one's quietus has over traditional methods is that of time factor. It takes longer. Hamlet has time to mull on the consequences. He has time, in Shakespeare's tragedy, to change his mind. This is something that the suicider who leaps into the air from the roof of the multi-storey carpark doesn't have. He cannot change his mind at the last second and propel himself back to his starting point. He must go on with the act. The tragedy is, he may survive; his crumpled and crippled body may be saved by medical skill.
Another advantage of the Dignitas method is that some inncocent stranger is not forced to particpate in the act. Consider the inter-city train driver who suddenly finds a suicider standing on the line. The driver has no time to react. He has no choice but to kill. It's the nightmare scenario in the real sense of the word. The driver is left with Hamlet's fardels. What shall he do with them Mr Willis? He can only take them home. It's all part of the job.

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