Life or death choices facing professionals

    A former teacher in her fifties who is severely ill with
    multiple sclerosis has won a landmark right to prevent local
    authority carers intervening to save her life.

    The woman, known only as Mrs C, is now active for only an hour a
    day. As soon as she knew she would become entirely dependent on
    carers, she made a living will refusing all life-prolonging
    treatment. Although doctors and nurses have been advised by lawyers
    to accede to living wills, this is the first known case to involve
    non-medical staff. It also strips bare the hypocrisy surrounding
    euthanasia.

    Mrs C says her carers support her decision. Durham social
    services said it would be inappropriate for its staff not to seek
    treatment for someone urgently requiring assistance.

    If care workers abide by her wishes, technically, they will have
    assisted her death by not attempting to avert it. They could also
    be vulnerable to a charge of neglect or manslaughter. “I want them
    to let me choke if that is the only option I have,” Mrs C says. “I
    know my death is going to be very hard and very horrible but
    society does not let me die in a humane manner.”

    The think-tank Demos is conducting research into how the
    post-war generation, the baby boomers, will re-fashion the private
    sector and the welfare state as they grow old. In a youth-obsessed
    society, many are said to be fearful of ageing, intent on not
    becoming dependent and enthusiastic about euthanasia.

    For now, they will have to be content with an inch-by-inch crawl
    to what is, arguably, an inevitable change in the law – a pace
    which is bound to raise increasingly difficult dilemmas for social
    services. Mrs C, for instance, fought a nine-month battle, backed
    by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, before Durham Council conceded
    to her wish. Care workers will now not administer first aid but
    they will call emergency services.

    “Social services need to have a policy on respecting valid
    living wills,” Mrs C says.

    The problem is that this creates a conundrum. It places the
    caring professions in the vanguard of the movement to legitimise
    the taking of life – but without the sanction of law.

    That is a cowardly way for society to behave. It is offloading
    responsibility because it is not prepared to acknowledge that
    leaving Mrs C to die in horrendous circumstances is as ethically
    fraught as allowing her to end her own life when she is ready.

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