LONDON – Ever watched a loved one die in a hospital bed, insensate from morphine, hands that made dinner, earned the rent, wiped away tears and raised a child bruised and swollen after one too many stabbings to find a vein?
If not, you probably will, ears straining for the final rattle in the throat and the skipped breath. And you’ll probably wonder: Is this the way life ends, not with a bang, not with rage against the dying of the light, but only the prolonged agony of awaiting the inevitable? And you may also start to think: Maybe the folks at Dignitas in Switzerland are onto something with their assisted-suicide program for the terminally ill?
And maybe Britain has noticed. This week, the House of Lords debated “a bill to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life,” which is only the second stage in a long parliamentary process before it even gets to the House of Commons to have a chance of becoming law.
The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland allow some form of assisted dying, as do several U.S. states. More countries should follow suit.
Living wills, in which a person lays out the terms of their future medical care in the event of incapacitation, aren’t without controversy and risk. The healthy me, writing today, might happily and knowingly sign up to forbid resuscitation and request a fast track to go gentle into that good night. The near-death me, however, trapped in an unresponsive, drug-addled shell, might be desperate for one more day, one last hour, every final minute that the medical profession and its machines can grant.
Still, the immutable statistics of global demographics mean more of us will see our parents railing against the restrictions of infirmity or disappearing into the fog of dementia, and in the process get a glimpse of our own potential endings. Statistics, however, are dull, and demographics are scary, so the implications of our aging population don’t get talked about as much as they should. And euthanasia — which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “a gentle and easy death,” with citations beginning in 1646 — is still something of a taboo.
It shouldn’t be. As people live longer, although not necessarily better, quality of existence issues will start to outweigh quantity of life as our twilight years nudge closer and closer to triple digits. And, paradoxically, the better the medical profession gets at end-of-life care, the longer our parents and grandparents are likely to spend trapped in the limbo of not-quite-gone, and not always comfortably numb as they slip slide away ever more slowly. In end-of-life cases, suicide should be painless; governments should make it so.
Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg columnist.
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