THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 171
A short stay in Switzerland
This is the title of a film on the television that I watched last night (25th January). Julie Walters plays a doctor on the cusp of retirement whose husband, at the start of the film, is wheelchair bound with an incurable wasting disease - a disease that progressively robs a person of all self control - physical and mental - and, eventually, results in death. After the husband dies she discovers that she too by an extraordinary coincidence has the same disease in a more virulent form. Eventually it will kill her after a long a painful descent into the horror of it - all of which she is only too aware as a doctor herself. The story is based on fact which makes the whole thing more poignant.
The film makes the case for assisted suicide - or assisted death, as it is called in the film by the Swiss Clinic that does the assisting. Julie Walters is well cast and plays the part of the terminally sick doctor brilliantly in my opinion. The role that must have taken a lot out of her as she has to portray the progressive effect of the disease.
There are three children - two daughters and a son, all in early adulthood. They are all sympathetic characters who love their mother deeply. When the mother begins to suffer the effects of the disease and begins to want to die all the children are horrified and resist the idea completely. They cannot even talk about it - they each have to go away and try to begin to understand what is actually going on in their mother’s life. They cannot accept the idea of the death of their mother - and, especially by suicide! We slowly reach the painful point where the mother actually tries on her own to commit suicide. This part of the film left me wondering. Taking account of the fact that she was a doctor - and obviously a very capable doctor - how could she have bungled her attempt to end her life? In fact it is revealed that the pills she ground up and took as a gruel were not even effective pills for a suicide attempt. So we are forced to the suggestion that the act was a cry for help - a cry for help to overcome the barriers to ending her own life.
It is right to bring in here the other couple in the film that are filled out just enough for us to see them as real people. I think the wife of this couple is a very old friend (as well as the husband being doctor to the family). He confirms the diagnosis - the wife attempts to help and encourage the patient.
The attempted suicide leads the children to begin to see the horror of what lies ahead for their mother and of the pain and suffering that their mother is already experiencing - they all now see clearly how the future only holds out the prospect of inevitable descent.
The mother then produces a newspaper clipping from her handbag about the Swiss clinic that help people die and asks her children to make the contact and, in effect, to organise the assisted death. By now the children and prepared to go along with the mother - they realise the terrible choice she is facing. Eventually the agreement of the Swiss Clinic is obtained and the children accept that their mother must do this thing while she still has the physical and mental ability to go under her own steam to Switzerland. Any delay could mean that the children, or anyone else who assisted her in the journey to commit suicide, could be prosecuted here in England.
The prospect of this threat of prosecution in this country for helping a suicide comes centre stage and we are faced with the moral question of whether it is right or not for our law to hold to this principle - that to help someone to commit suicide - to end their own life - is not only morally wrong in all cases but also, legally, a crime.
Although this is the point of the film, the story line does not examine any of the cogent arguments against allowing legally assisted death. It does not for instance portray any hint of a situation where there might be pressure - real or imagined - by the children on the parent to take the route of assisted suicide. Nor does it highlight the situation where other factors press in on an elderly person to make them feel that they are no longer any use to anyone and that it would be best to finish things. Clearly the film sets out to portray the situation from one side - where a person has every reason to seek an early death and where members of the family eventually come to terms and help them.
All three children accompany their mother to Switzerland and there she has a last evening with them before they all go next morning to the flat where the fatal drink will be taken by her. As they look over the lake before they have dinner, the son - who, earlier, has been accused by one of his sisters of being his mother’s ‘blue-eyed boy’ - tells his mother that he is going to get married, and the mother displays real joy and warmly congratulates him. She says they must celebrate that evening, and so we come to the final meal where they all drink champagne to celebrate the news about the son’s forthcoming marriage - and perhaps to celebrate the life of the mother that will soon be ended?
We see the situation unfold next morning, starting with the normal routine things one does in a hotel - tidying up and getting ready to move out. These are in strong contrast to the mother who, having put on powder and lipstick, sits on the side of the bed as she contemplates what lies ahead - as she says goodbye to her life.
The scene covering the act of assisted dying is handled well - one realises both the ease and the horror of it all, especially as finally the three children embrace the now dead body of their mother. The children travel home and in the next few scenes we briefly see the marriage of the son - and it is a gay partnership. This twist in the tail of the story merely augments the picture one has built up of a thoroughly practical, loving and understanding mother. Obviously, she was at peace about her gay son and his partner, and was glad when told that they were about to ‘tie the knot’.
The other side of the argument about assisted suicide is only very briefly touched on - sketched rather than explored. It centres on the wife of the family doctor who is the long time friend of the sick mother. As a friend she comes to play chess with the sick woman after the attempted suicide and starts to advise against any more suicide attempts. She tells her that it was a selfish act. When she is told of the intention to go on television to explain the case for assisted dying she explodes with anger at the thought and they part never to meet again. The case against is never really explored - as is inevitable in a film that lasts just one hour. Perhaps one day we will have a film about a terminally ill person who resists the idea of suicide and who has what is sometimes called a ’good death’ despite the pain and suffering. But I guess that will have to wait a while!
As a Christian, what do I think about the issues raised in this excellent film? Well, as you might expect, I am heartily in favour of the gay son who got ‘married’ to his lover. And I am heartily in favour of the enlightened attitude of the mother towards all of that. But the suicide?
In reply I have to start with one of my most fundamental beliefs - which starts from the saying that ‘to understand all is to forgive all‘. I believe that the forgiving love of a God who understands is one of the key facts about the God that Jesus came to reveal to us. In other words, while I do of course accept the fact of evil and sin, I also believe that if we could see into the heart of a person’s life - their genetic inheritance, their childhood, and the pressures of their life and all the other factors, then I believe that we would be far less dogmatic and judgemental. In fact, we would be not judgemental at all. One of the most insistent commands of our Lord was that we judge not others.
A doctor facing the same terrible disease that has just put her husband through a slow and lingering death? A doctor, who thoroughly understands all the horrifying detail of the sickness? A doctor who can watch her own deterioration day by day? Of course I can understand why she took the course she did in the film. Was she right? Who am I to say she was right or wrong? How can I get inside her head and make any sort of evaluation of her motives, her concepts, her spiritual state? So I guess I am saying that it is for each of us to make up our own minds when the time comes for us - and pray God that it never does come!
Meantime, should we change the law? Should we allow assisted suicide? Perhaps hedged around with medical conditions? I don’t know! But I do note one thing: that although this country may still have lingering feelings for religion, the vast majority of its people now have no living Christian faith. Why then should the majority abide by a view of life and morality that is held by some Christians?
Speaking for myself I can only say that I believe that God holds each life in his hands. I believe that whatever happens to us, whether planned or permitted by God, is to be faced with courage and fortitude, trusting in the love and support of God. When we are overwhelmed by sickness - or the threat of certain sickness, or by the burden we feel we are likely to become to others, then we have to decide, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what is the right course forward for us at that time and in those circumstances. Whether we attempt to go through the storm or go for a short stay in Switzerland, we know that God will always be with us will always bless us and will always love us.
As to the argument that an elderly, sick person may wrongly choose suicide because they feel - or are made to feel - a burden, I think there is a lot of force in the argument. That in my view is the strongest reason for leaving the law as it is. At present it takes real determination to go abroad to commit suicide. But the opportunity is there if a person wishes - and can afford it. Perhaps that is how it should remain. But maybe that is rather a cop out! Where does that leave the Swiss who have it all on their doorstep? I have not even attempted to survey the moral and spiritual arguments in this article, nor talked of the sacredness of life which is given to us as a gift by God. Maybe I need to come back to the subject in more depth - but meantime, if you get an opportunity to see the film I recommend it!
If you would like to go into the subject of euthanasia more deeply I can recommend the two excellent articles by Roy Clements on this web site. The first is at http://www.courage.org.uk/articles/article.asp?id=153 and the second at: http://www.courage.org.uk/articles/article.asp?id=152