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By Trevor Stammers, Director of the Centre for Bioethics and Emerging Technologies

The Art of Dying Well project based at St Mary’s University held an evening on death and dying at The Exchange last week.   It was a packed house – even on a Friday night clearly lots of people are interested in talking about preparing for death.

 As Director of the Centre for Bioethics at the university, I was present in that capacity anyway but the evening took on a personal element for me as I had a call on my way to the event to say my father was back in hospital again.  He had been told he “hadn’t got long” almost a year ago (prognostication about death even by experienced doctors is notoriously difficult). Never-the –less, as a former practising medic myself, seeing my dad’s decline over the past year, I am pretty sure he will die in 2019 and coping with his wish to die at home has been a terrible strain on our entire family - not because we don’t love him but because we do.

I therefore completely understood those present at Friday’s event who used the question time to advocate for legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide in the UK. Both speakers - palliative care specialist Dr Kathryn Mannix and actor Greg Wise who cared for his sister full-time in her dying months, movingly spoke of how though sharing the suffering of the dying was difficult, it was also an experience that neither regretted and Greg shared how it had even changed his mind about euthanasia. As he said, “It’s complicated”.

It sure is and when raging in the storm of doubt and fear precipitated by the helplessness of seeing someone you love dying, I fully get why relatives may want doctors to end their suffering and that of the dying person -  for the two agonies are inextricably linked.

A headline I came across in my research today however has made my reason subdue my emotions which cry out for an end to my own waiting. A Dutch news site about the first fall in the officially reported numbers of euthanasia cases since the practice became legal there in 2002, proclaims Fewer cases of euthanasia last year; doctors’ concerns may be to blame.

Language matters and the unmistakeable message of this headline is that fewer cases of Dutch citizen’s being killed by their doctors is cause not for celebration but rather for blame. This shows how deeply embedded into Dutch culture ending patients’ lives has become to the extent that increased numbers year on year has become an expectation - at least for the headline writer.

As the Netherlands , Belgium  and Canada,  all clearly show, once it becomes legal for doctors to kill the terminally ill at their request, it becomes impossible to prevent others - especially the mentally ill from being killed too – and with the demented and depressed, ‘at their request’  becomes more difficult to be sure about.

So though in the midst of sleepless nights of anticipatory grief, I feel keenly the illusory sweetness of any premature relief that euthanasia might afford from this waiting game that only has one outcome, I know though that getting my own way will in time threaten the lives of others who might otherwise choose to live.  Once the role of doctors coming as killer is accepted - albeit initially in supposedly restricted circumstances, coming in the role of healer is inevitably compromised.

By Trevor Stammers, Director of the Centre for Bioethics and Emerging Technologies