How do you decide to live or die? 

AS far as Mum was concerned, she wasn't dying.

Not of breast cancer, nor of the subsequent liver cancer.

It was the unknown brain tumours, in the end. We spent four agonising days by her bedside, waiting for the inevitable.

We knew she wasn't in pain; an automatic morphine dispenser made sure of that.

We just waited for her body to slowly shut down.

Nearly three years later, it is these four days that make me think that in today's world, with its endless choices, we must also be able to find a way in which we can give people - terminally ill people - the choice to die, in their own way, when they are ready.

Mum never expressed such a wish nor would we have encouraged her to do so.

She instead battled valiantly and without complaint. But if she had turned to us one day and told us she wanted to die, after years of chemo and a futureless prognosis, could we have blamed her?

I have interviewed people on both sides of this debate, and I can understand both points of view (although our work requires us to present both sides of any argument, it is not always easy to understand both).

There is the slippery slope argument: if we help these people to die, is it an expectation that everyone with a terminal illness should also choose to die prematurely? What about people with serious disabilities? The very elderly? What message are we sending to them?

People fear the elderly, especially women, may be placed under pressure to end their life to avoid becoming a burden on their families.

And, sadly, there will always be a case where family members may have less than altruistic reasons for doing so.

Doctors, whose whole ethos is about protecting and prolonging life, are understandably nervous (if not vehemently opposed) to helping to end them.

They say it is often the families who suffer rather than the patient, and it shouldn't be about them.

Some argue that with advances in pain management, very ill people do not have to live in agony anymore; that assisted dying is not necessary, and we should leave nature to take its proverbial course.

But it is not just the physical pain. It is the existential pain.

If someone's life is taken over with preventing an impending and inevitable death, can we blame them for wanting to end it? And the reality is that in the interim, people will continue to take their own lives, imploring their loved ones to help them, without any legal protection for doing so.

The problem is this: there is no way of compensating for a life mistakenly ended. And so, if we are going to make laws to allow it, they have to be watertight.

If we lived in a perfect world, then surely we could choose to die in one, too.

So what about in a slightly-less-than- perfect world?


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