Starving to Death

By Jim McVeagh 25/03/2010

I might have known that the case of Margaret Page, the woman who has decided to starve herself to death, has been taken up as a cause célèbre by the euthanasia lobby, notably Lesley Martin. It seems to me, however, that there is a substantial difference between actively participating in the ending of another person’s life and not intervening when a person refuses medical treatment (and in Margaret Page’s case – food). Mrs. Page has a perfect right to refuse to eat if she wishes.

I should point out that this is not a medical matter at all. She has had three psychiatric assessments that all agree that she is of sound mind. She does not require acute psychiatric intervention. It is therefore not the responsibility of doctors and nurses to force feed her, as they are sure her voluntary starvation has no psychiatric genesis. Her husband cannot, therefore, insist that the staff of the facility she is in force feed her, insert IV lines or generally over-ride her wishes in any way.

I also note that Mr. Page is making an issue of this against the wishes of Mrs. Page. I suspect he is doing this to try and force the St John of God care home and the DHB to provide the facilities Mr. Page feels Mrs. Page needs. In other words, he is trying to jump the queue. Mrs. Page, on the other hand, makes no such statement, declaring that she “no longer wishes to live”. This all rather leaves it “up in the air” as to whether this is a protest or a genuine attempt to end life. I am inclined to go with Mrs. Page’s version of events because her husband is somewhat incoherent as this statement shows:

If Mrs Page was young and fit – she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage 20 years ago and is disabled – society would not put up with it, Mr Page said.

If Mrs. Page was young and fit, of course, she would not need the interventions that Mr. Page is asking for.

In addition, Mrs. Page has been at St. John of God’s since 2003. It is very unlikely that these are new, acute problems. One wonders quite why there is such a hurry for these extra things. Admittedly, one also wonders exactly why a more comfortable wheelchair is taking so long to arrange.

While Mrs. Page is perfectly entitled to end her life in any way she chooses, that does not mean that we should support active intervention in any way. Lesley Martin tries to make out that a euthanasia law would prevent Mrs. Page from seeking such a painful and protracted death. This is not exactly true. While I do not know this lady’s exact circumstances, there is usually little preventing a person from ending their life in a more active way, should they choose. Granted, sometimes circumstances make choices very limited indeed.

As I have blogged more completely here, euthanasia issues are far more complex than the good Ms. Martin would have us believe. In I recall correctly, Ms Martin was convicted in 2004 of attempting to murder her terminally ill mother with an overdose of morphine. It is exactly this sort of active intervention that I have most problem with. Ms. Martin was utterly unqualified to make this decision – being emotionally involved, unable to make a psychiatric assessment and unable to judge accurately the morphine dose required. It was, therefore, right that her nursing registration was terminated and she was convicted of attempted murder. Even if there had been a legal form of euthanasia available, there is no doubt that Ms. Martin would not have fulfilled the criteria in any way.

However, even had Ms. Martin’s mother been formally psychiatrically assessed and her fatal dose administered professionally and expertly, I have qualms about the decision processes involved. They seem to me to be suspiciously similar to the decision processes we would use to determine if someone should be given the death penalty – mental status assessment, motivation, circumstances etc. If we are so unconfident of our judgements that we steer clear of the death penalty for murder, can we be truly confident of our decisions for euthanasia? And I am well aware that euthanasia, in this context, is voluntary and the death penalty is not. But in both cases a person is being asked to terminate a life. Would the death penalty really be any better to administer if it was only done on criminals who volunteered? (Not so far fetched as it sounds – some may truly prefer death to life imprisonment)

All of this argument does not even consider that there are many other factors involved such as coercion (sign this or I’ll hurt you), manipulation (you can’t really want to go on living…), guilt (you are such a burden on the family…), peer pressure (…a burden on society), boredom , loneliness, personality types (negatives) and incorrect diagnoses (the cancer that really wasn’t) to name but a few factors that can seriously cast doubt on the validity of a person’s decision to “end it all”.

Euthanasia is one of those difficult issues where the proponents sound compassionate and reasonable, but have simply not thought enough about the consequences to other people. There will be people for whom euthanasia may be a reasonable alternative to a life they do not wish to lead. Unfortunately, for many people such a law would open the door, not to a pleasant death surrounded by family, but to legalised murder and an end that can truly be categorised by the title of Ms. Martin’s book – “To Die Like a Dog“.


Related posts:

  1. Euthanasia (Part 1)
  2. Death is Costly
  3. Euthanasia (Part 4)