Today, I want to honour the memory of my friend Lucy.
When I was a child, I spent a long time in hospital in Madrid. Sometimes for a few months, sometimes a whole year without leaving. As a curious and social child, I was always looking for friends and to meet new people. The doctors would encourage me and call for me if there was a child who needed a friend or some sort of psychological support. As I was able to speak three languages it was relatively easy to make new friends.
There was one room that I was particularly curious about in the corridor next to mine, as nobody had asked me to go in there and I had never seen anyone come out from it. Many times, I heard sounds of someone in there in pain. One day, when I was 9 years old, the door was open, so I invited myself inside. I don’t remember whether I wanted to try to help the person in pain, or if I was just curious. Inside, I saw a very old lady lying in a bed, hooked up to machines and IV drips, who looked very tired, sick, and sad.
I said hello and she tried to hide her pain; she was shocked by an unexpected child in her room but said hello back. She told me her name was Lucy. I asked her if she needed help and why she was crying. She told me she had some pain and hoped that soon it would be gone. Later I realised what she really meant.
I asked her if she wanted me to stay and she told me she would be happy to have me there, though I didn’t know what I would do. She said maybe I could read a book for her. I rushed to my room and brought one of my children’s books and started to read. She encouraged me and I started to visit her every day.
This became part of my routine, and she always seemed happy to see me. She told me about her family and her life, but that nobody came to visit her. She told me she had been in the hospital for 20 years and that she was in continuous pain, even medicine was unable to help her. One day she told me that she wanted to end her life, but the Church and the law would not allow her to. In her condition, she was barely able to lift her hand. To end her life, she would need help.
On this day, I cried. Not only because I would miss her if she died, but also because I felt it was unfair that she was unable to end her life if that was what she wanted. It shouldn’t be for me or others to decide for her; not the hospital, or the government, or the Church. She was the one who was suffering.
I asked the priest why they wouldn’t allow her to end her life, and he told me it was because God loves her.
Euthanasia and the Law
Voluntary euthanasia is the ending of a person’s life, with their consent, to relieve suffering, usually performed by a doctor. It is understandably a controversial topic, not least of all because of the discomfort many of us feel when thinking or talking about death. Euthanasia is illegal in most countries across the world and is sometimes equated to murder, particularly in religious contexts. Beyond this, an important argument against euthanasia is the risk that the patient is pressured into giving their consent. There are concerns that structural inequalities and social prejudices, against the elderly or persons with disabilities, for example, can influence end-of-life decisions that people make. There are also complicated and difficult questions around informed consent and whether some individuals have sufficient capacity to make such decisions.
There are three types of euthanasia legal in different countries today. Active euthanasia is performed by a medical professional with the patient’s consent, where the medical professional administers a lethal dose of a drug. This is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada, for example. Physician-assisted suicide is when a patient wishes to end their life but needs a doctor’s help to do so, for example, by providing a lethal dose of drugs to the patient which the patient then takes without assistance. This is legal in Germany, Switzerland, and some US states. The most widely accepted form of euthanasia, though still only legal in a few contexts, is passive euthanasia, in which the patient is allowed to die through the withdrawal of treatment. This is legal in the Nordic countries, France, the UK, and others.
The term “euthanasia” comes from Greek, meaning “good death”. Some day we will all die, and the right to die means that this will be on our own terms, rather than left to the decisions of others. While some might disagree about the idea there can be a “good death”, it is undeniable that some deaths are worse than others – prolonged, drawn-out suffering is unimaginable for those who have not experienced it and, therefore, people in that situation should be allowed to make their own decisions.
Since I met Lucy, I have believed that the right to die must be accepted. People should be allowed to choose to end their suffering and to leave the world with dignity. I don’t know how many weeks or months I went to visit Lucy every day, but the times I was with her were the only times she was not crying. She suffered less when she wasn’t alone. One day I went to her room but nobody would allow me to enter, and there were many people inside. I understood that Lucy had passed away. Finally, she would not suffer from pain.
Lucy had to wait twenty years before she was finally released. Everywhere there are others like her, wondering how they will be able to endure another hour, another minute. On Thursday 17th of December, 2020, Spain’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill to legalise physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia for long-suffering patients of incurable diseases or unbearable permanent conditions. It is expected to pass the Senate and become law in 2021.