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Who Will Help Another to Die?

A personal essay by Derek Humphry

No one can truly say how they will cope with an act of voluntary euthanasia - either their own or assisting another - until they actually face the experience. But it does help to think the matter through in advance.

Some people can philosophically decide in advance that they will accelerate the end of their lives if caught in a distressing illness, and some can decide that they will, if asked, help a loved one with this act of self-deliverance.

On the other hand, some people decide in advance that they definitely will not seek euthanasia, wishing to battle it out to the end. Others insist that under no circumstance could they assist another person to die, regardless of suffering and need.

Since I published a little book, Jean's Way ,telling how I helped my own wife to die in 1975, my 'confession' and the impact of the book have induced many people to impart to me their innermost thoughts about dying. It has been may privilege to have been accorded a remarkable insight into their most private attitudes and prejudices on this sensitive subject.

The impression which remains with me is one of uncertainty as to what one will do before the emotional moment of need. I have known those who swear they could never help their spouse die, although a rational request was made, but ultimately provided the necessary aid and comfort, having resolved their inner conflicts and witnessed the increasing pain and anguish of their loved one. Yet there are others who positively agree to help in the self-deliverance of another and later have a change of heart.

Care for Others

Then there are those who decide on a carefully planned suicide to bring an end to their suffering and have the courage and determination to go through with it, even checking into a motel and taking an overdose, very privately, so that family members are not compromised legally or injured psychologically.

I have known people who have helped loved ones or close friends to die and wanted to shout their action from the rooftops, feeling strongly that the law which they broke can only be changed by their public witness. (Usually they take the sensible advice of friends and end up being discreet.)

Some spouses insist upon sitting with their partner as they take their life with an overdose. A woman told me recently: "My husband had lung cancer for eight years, complicated with radiation side-effects, and made more painful by emphysema. He got to the state where every breath was agony. When he decided to end his life, I wanted to sit with him, because we loved each other for 30 years. I have no regrets at all that I was with him in the end."

Another wife, who is a skilled nurse, told me how she had administered internally the fatal dose which killed her husband, a cancer sufferer. "We did it by agreement when he could take no more and knew that death was close," she said. "We had fought the disease together for three years; it seemed logical that the dying should be together and under our control." It is also true that many self-proclaimed euthanasists often do not have the chance to conduct their self-deliverance (surely a more apt word in this context than suicide) because death comes to them too suddenly.

A Question Of Character

It all comes down, in the end, to the character of the person and the individual circumstances of the particular dying experience. Conditioning factors guiding a person's attitude to voluntary euthanasia frequently arerelated to religious beliefs, which may be strong, moderate or completely lacking. Whether they were brought up to regard death as an integral part of life, or taught to shun it, and whether they believe in life after death, also are factors which affect them.

In some cases I have observed all these factors count for nothing: the clinching consideration is whether or not the person desiring an accelerated death, or the one asked to help, feels instinctively that it is right for them. This 'rightness' is based on a multitude of influences, the most important being the person's life experience: a nurse is likely to be more tuned into suffering than a professional football player, to take an extreme example.

In 1974, when Jean, my first wife, asked me to help her to die it came as a surprise since we had never previously discussed the matter. It did not strike me as a shocking option in view of her condition and nature. In fact, it seemed most sensible. She had bone cancer, with secondaries, and her strong character always had demonstrated an ability to think things through calmly and to make decisions right for her.

Solo Decision

I admired three things about her approach to her self-deliverance:

  1. It was not to take place until we were convinced that any hope for further remission existed, and that no 'miracle cure" was on the horizon;

  2. It was to be her decision alone, but to be guided by relevant information from me (such as judging whether she was acting out of depression); and

  3. She had planned her death meticulously and was wholly unashamed ofher intentions. (In conversations with close friends she would casually mention her plans.)

When first the plan was put to me I recall saying, instantly andintuitively, that if our positions were reversed, and it was I who was dying,I would be asking for the same help. (Neither of us, by the way, believed in an afterlife).

Jean lived for another nine months after we made our pact. They were rich and wonderful times for both of us. Though her body was crumbling from carcinomatosis, she was creative, loving and purposeful with everyone, so much so that many could believe she was dying, least of all that she knew it. With hindsight, I now understand that it was knowledge of the exact form that death would take which gave that peace of mind. It is an old truism that it is not death but the dying that is most frightening.

Jean's home and family mirrored her life and achievements, and it was inthat setting she wanted to depart. She well knew that, given the very painful illness she had contracted, her unpleasant destiny - if she did not take control - would be to die in the screened-off corner of a hospital wardin the middle of the night, comatose for weeks from pain-killing narcotics. She had, after all, spent too much time in cancer wards not to have witnessed many such deaths. It was these painful observations that strengthened her resolve to organize for herself a more dignified end.

As her death approached in the spring of 1975, at the age of 42, I examined both my conscience, and the circumstances, as I was about to be called upon to fulfill my part of the life-ending bargain. Fortunately, we all enjoyed intelligent, open communication with our medical advisors about Jean's condition so there was no likelihood of a misunderstanding: she was very close to death; she had enjoyed her share of remissions, and any hope of a cure was (and still is) out of the question for her advanced form of cancer.

Was it right to help? I reasoned that, being asked by the person I loved most, I could not refuse her, even though it was a serious crime. (Suicide and attempted suicide are no longer crimes in the English-speaking world, and many other countries, but assistance with suicide still is, and is sometimes punishable as murder). I asked myself, doesn't love and long-term comradeship (we had been married 22 years) demand that we stand by one another in times of dire need?

I could not have lived with my conscience had I refused her plea to die, nor could I bear the thought that her attempted self-deliverance might be botched. Such a long and harrowing struggle for life (two and a half years) deserved the reward of a good end on her own terms. I resolved to help, whatever the consequences. It took place on March 29, 1975.

Since Jean's Way was published in 1978 it has had a mixed reception. Far more women than men are able to relate to the struggle that it outlines. I believe that generally women accept the reality of dying far more comfortably than men. My critics - and there are many - have called me `murderer' and `killer,' but I feel I did the right thing by Jean; their barbs have no effect. I am untroubled. Of course. I did not `kill' or `murder' Jean. The ordinary connotation of those words is that of taking a life without permission, a life that wished to continue. What I did was to assist a rational person to end a life no longer tolerable which was nearly over anyway.

Obligated To Act

After Jean's death, not one of the many persons who knew of my part in it chose to inform the police. The family doctor assumed cancer was the culprit and signed the death certificate. Three years later when the book was published there was considerable controversy and the news media in Britain asked the police what they intended doing about my open confession of criminality. The police were obliged to act upon this complaint.

When the very gentlemanly senior detective arrived by appointment I told him immediately that I was guilty of breaking this law, fully aware that it carried with it a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment. I added that although I believed firmly in the rule of law (all my writings had bore this out) this had been one of those rare occasions where personal, moral obligation transcended law. If prosecuted I would not contest the case, though I would argue strongly against a prison sentence.

Ultimately the public prosecutor used his statutory discretion and did not charge me with any offense. One reason, I suppose, was that the `crime' was then more than three years old and evidence would be difficult to marshal. Another reason for clemency, no doubt was that substantial public opinion was demonstrably in favor of Jean's solution.

Of course, the police also demanded the identity of the physician who had given me the lethal drugs. I refused to divulge it and they were unable to pursue the matter further. I certainly would not risk a prosecution of this wise and humane man on account of his friendship with me.

Most people involved in an euthanasia incident have no difficulty in putting the experience behind them. Many are proud of their act of love, so I find. And, were I not at peace with myself, I could not agree to continual interviews on television and radio on the subject of Jean's death. I do not seek this exposure; media people find Jean's tale a life-celebrating event worthy of repeated publication to their public. My motive is to achieve a democratic change in the law to permit physician-assisted dying for the terminally and hopelessly ill. It will come before long.

Note: Copies of Jean's Way are available from the ERGO Online Bookstore.

© Copyright 1995, Derek Humphry. All rights reserved. Students may download this article for the purposes of taking extracts, electronic publication or photocopying. It must not be reproduced in print media or books without the author's written permission.

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