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

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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