Monday, October 20, 2008

When Parents Think It’s OK To Help Kill Their Grown Children

Things in the UK are spinning out of control. Fast.

There’s something fundamentally wrong, and chilling, when parents think it’s ok to help their children die. It then reaches the realm of insanity when they’re willing to chatter on about it as if they should be up for some kind of humanitarian award.

Hard on the heels of multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy petitioning Britain’s highest court to let her legally die via assisted suicide, the parents of Dan James have made the media rounds trumpeting their "compassionate" actions that facilitated their son being killed.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dan James had a lot to live for. At 23, he was a star junior international rugby player. By all accounts he was intelligent, funny, quirky, and in the prime of his youth.

In March 2007, he suffered a severe neck injury in a rugby training session and was left paralyzed from the chest down.  He underwent several operations and spent eight months in a rehabilitation hospital before returning to his parents’ home.

Early in September this year, Dan died in Switzerland at an apartment run by the Swiss pro-death organization Dignitas.

Sidebar on Dignitas: They’ve been kicked out of at least one apartment when it became known that they were using the apartment to kill people. Undeterred, for a while they moved their operation to parking lots. 

Assisted suicide in the back of a car.


Anyway, it was Dan’s parents who took him to Switzerland to die.

At 23.

Without a terminal illness.

Without, as far as I can tell, him being in excruciating and unbearable pain.

And they’re so proud of it, by golly.

Here’s what Dan’s mother, Julie, had to say in a piece in London’s Times, under the heading of “Why my son had the right to die”

Three weeks ago our son was at last allowed his wish of a dignified death in the Dignitas apartment in Zurich . . . He couldn't walk, had no hand function, but constant pain in all of his fingers. He was incontinent, suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body and needed 24-hour care.

Dan had tried to commit suicide three times but this was unsuccessful due to his disability. His only other option was to starve himself.

Whilst not everyone in Dan’s situation would find it as unbearable as Dan, what right does any human being have to tell any other that they have to live such a life, filled with terror, discomfort and indignity, what right does one person who chooses to live with a particular illness or disability have to tell another that that they should have to.

A social worker in Britain alerted authorities to what had happened.

Julie James was not amused, observing that:

This person had never met Dan before or after his accident and obviously gave no consideration for our younger daughters who had seen their big brother suffer so much, and the day before had to say goodbye to him”

I hope that one day I will get the chance to speak to this lady and ask if she had a son, daughter, father, mother, who could not walk, had no hand function, was incontinent, and relied upon 24-hour care for every basic need and they had asked her for support, what would she have done?!

Perhaps it’s just me, but seeing death as the only option in these circumstances seems more self-serving than compassionate.

Julie James’ comments raise a host of concerns.

One: The culture of death is so entrenched in Britain that deathspeak flows naturally from ordinary citizens’ mouths: “right to die,” dignified death,” “unbearable” living, “a life filled with terror, discomfort and indignity.”

Two: The “you can’t judge me” argument. Really? Why not? Afraid some people might actually think taking your son to his death might be, heaven help us, wrong?

Three: The brutal finality of what they did, as if there were no other options. What Julie James was really saying was “Well, Dan just had to die because he wasn’t what he used to be. That’s how it should be, you know.”

Four: Earth to Mark and Julie James: There were tons of other options, beginning with the fact that in rehab he’d gotten a little movement back in his fingers. Dan’s hopelessness was understandable, but not inevitable. Nobody bothered, as far as I can tell, to establish, let alone treat, his obvious depression. The options go on and on.

Last two observations:

Maybe the saddest point of all: Had Dan had other parents, he might be with us today. Still funny, still intelligent, still quirky. Still enjoying the love and care of his family and friends.

 The most macabre point of all? 

I’m sure Dan’s two young sisters will live the rest of their lives knowing that if they ever end up like Dan, mom and dad will be waiting in the wings . . . .


william Peace said...

Mr. James death is a social tragedy. Lost in the discussion about his parents decision to help Mr. James commit suicide is why he considered himself a "second class citizen". The implications of his death are far reaching as indicated by the overwhelming support his parents have received in mainstream news reports. The message sent is quite clear--life with a disability is not worth living. No wonder Mr. James felt like a second class citizen, society did not value his existence. Please see my blog Bad Cripple for an elaboration on this point

Dr. Mark Mostert said...

William, thanks so much for this comment. I agree, we are in a very dangerous position regarding people with disabilities.

How might we get together and form some critical mass to make people more aware??

Matthew Smith said...

I'm not sure if you can measure the level of support for assisted suicide in the UK by what appears in the press. Sure, there are a lot of people who agree with it but there are others that don't, and there has been quite a lot of debate, particularly in the right-leaning press but also (mostly from disability advocates on the anti side, and from the likes of Polly Toynbee on the pro side) in the liberal press (which basically means the Guardian).

Personally, I do think that what Daniel James's parents did was extremely selfish and irresponsible. One thing nobody mentions is that living with a morose and miserable person was probably wearing them down quite a bit. I would like to have seen them held to account, but there would have been an enormous political cost and whether the jury would have convicted them is doubtful.

It says a lot about the Swiss attitude to the state and the law that the facility is allowed to operate. In the USA, it would have been sabotaged.