Living with dignity
years ago I decided I could no longer face life. I wanted to die
— a strong wish that lasted over 10 years. If euthanasia were
legal then, I would no longer be here to write this. But I have
changed my outlook on life.
Deborah Annetts, writing in the Guardian last week, lamented the
fact that a man with cancer went to Switzerland in order to end his
life, and suggested that a euthanasia law with "strict legal safeguards"
would be an ideal way to deal with the problems faced by people who are
"suffering unbearably from an incurable illness." I have good reason to
disagree. Had the sort of law she proposes been in place some 17 years
ago I would not now be writing this.
at the Ongole Center in India
I have spina bifida, emphysema and osteoporosis. I use a wheelchair
full time, and suffer severe spinal pain on a daily basis. This pain is
not always well controlled even with morphine. All the conditions I have
are incurable, and it is very likely that my pain will get worse over
time. When the pain is at its worst I cannot think or speak, and this
can go on for hours, with no prospect of relief. Taking morphine often
makes me feel sick, and severe nausea is an added burden.
17 years ago I decided I could no longer face life. I wanted to die —
a strong wish that lasted over 10 years. During the first 5 of those
years I seriously attempted suicide, by various methods (cutting my
wrists, taking overdoses of painkillers with large amounts of alcohol,
etc). I wanted to sleep for ever and never hurt again. On the most
serious of those occasions I was taken to hospital after my friends
found me and called 999. I was treated against my will in hospital, and
was extremely angry with the friends who had initiated life-saving
I was of sound mind. My decision was voluntary. I had several
incurable conditions, I had severe pain which could not be remedied, and
I had a "settled wish." At the time some doctors thought I had only a
short time to live — one suggested 6 months — but I continued to live
and had a settled wish to die for about 10 years.
Had a Dutch-type euthanasia law been in place I would have requested
death. Under the "strict legal safeguards" which apply there, I would
have qualified for euthanasia. Criteria like these are not "safeguards"
at all, despite the insistence of those who support euthanasia that they
are. They just separate those who are considered "right to want to die"
from those considered "wrong to want to die." Those in the latter group
receive help to live. Those in the former are killed. The criteria cited
as "safeguards" are simply value judgements by those who think they know
what sort of person is, in effect, "better off dead."
Pro-euthanasia campaigners have sometimes suggested that I would not,
in fact, have qualified for euthanasia under a Dutch model law, because
I was not terminally ill, and because they claim I was "depressed."
These suggestions are easily refuted. Quite apart from the doctors'
(incorrect) estimation of my remaining life-span, the Dutch law does not
specify that the patient must be terminally ill, only that s/he must
have an incurable condition, be "suffering unbearably" and that there be
no alternative way of alleviating the suffering.
Leaving aside the arrogance of those who claim the ability to gauge
my mental state at a time when they did not even know of my existence,
the Dutch law also does not exclude depression as a reason for allowing
euthanasia. Indeed there have been cases of euthanasia in Holland in
which the patient's only condition was depression. Deborah Annetts, in
her Commentary, cited the aims of the VES as "we campaign for a more
humane law in the UK limited to competent adults, suffering unbearably
from an incurable illness who are making an informed choice." That
statement also does not specify that the person must be terminally ill
and not be depressed. I would qualify for euthanasia under those
criteria too. Now, some seven years after the wish to die receded I
still have the same disabilities and my spinal pain is equally as severe
as it was when I wanted to die. What changed was my outlook on life.
I went to India with Colin Harte, my full time assistant, to visit a
new project to help disabled children, little knowing that it would
change my life for ever. Many of the children are so disabled they can
barely manage to crawl in the dust. They are unwanted and unloved by
their families, but it is true to say that they saved my life. The first
time I visited the children they called me "Mummy." They hugged and
loved me, and as I was playing with them, I suddenly loved them all,
overwhelmingly and fiercely, as if they really were my own. When we left
I said to Colin "I think I want to live." It was the first time I had
thought that for over 10 years.
As a result of that visit, I founded and now run a charity called
Enable (Working in India) to help those and, now, many more disabled
children. "My" children have given me a reason to live. They love me
overwhelmingly, just as I am. They too have incurable conditions, and
many suffer much pain. But they can and do give and receive a tremendous
love, which transformed my life.
Euthanasia would have robbed me of the last 17 years of my life, and
it would have robbed "my" Indian children of the chance in life they now
have. While the VES speak only of a right to "die with dignity" what
people like me really need is help and support to live with dignity
until we die naturally.
For more information on anti-euthanasia campaigns in the U.K, see
Much Alive, a group of disabled people who oppose euthanasia, and
group campaigning against euthanasia.
You can write to the author of this piece at
Alison Davis. "Living with Dignity." The Guardian (November
This article reprinted with permission from the author, Alison Davis.
Alison Davis runs
in India), which she set up to support disabled children in South
During a visit to India in 1995 Alison Davis and Colin Harte visited
a centre built to care for 35 disabled children in the town of Kanigiri,
Andhra Pradesh State, South India, which had just been opened by Fr Gali
Arulraj, an Indian priest. They were impressed by Fr Arulraj’s
pioneering work, and seeing that he was getting very little support, set
up a charity in the UK, now called Enable (Working in India), to fund
and develop his work.
With Enable’s support the Kanigiri Centre has grown to accommodate 75
disabled children. A second centre to accommodate a further 50 children
(and with room for further growth) was opened in January 2001 in the
town of Ongole, 50 miles from Kanigiri.
Copyright © 2002 The Guardian