In an interview, writer Guy Kennaway reveals to Rosa Silverman how, three years ago, he was asked by ‘his elderly mother and her third husband’ to help them to die, telling him: ‘“We have decided to kill ourselves … I need to get hold of the right drugs. Can you buy me some heroin?”’ Susie Kennaway, then 78, was not ill – apart from a ‘collapsed spine’, which ‘“can be very painful”’ and shingles, ‘her physical health is in fine fettle’ – indeed, she ‘is not suffering from a degenerative or terminal illness’ but ‘enjoys an active life: gardening, restoring china and contemplating and contemplating writing another book, which would be her third’; according to her son, ‘“she’s as sharp as she was at 35”’, and when she made her request, she “‘had no intention of topping”’ herself, but was merely thinking ahead.
Although her son was ‘“shocked”’ at her request, he began to see that she had ‘“made some good points”’, arguing that ‘“[t]he time to start thinking about this subject is when you’re well, not when there’s a major crisis going on, someone’s in terrible pain and you’ve got this awful situation, which is being controlled by doctors”’ (Rosa Silverman, ‘“Son, she said, will you help me to die?”’ Telegraph, January 30, 2020).
And yet he seems happy with the idea of doctors being in control of ‘assisted dying’ for the old and weak, aka killing them. He says we need to discuss the subject “‘because the opposite of killing yourself is not a lovely, natural death at a ripe old age, it’s being tortured by the NHS and pharmaceutical companies, in my opinion, for profit.”’ He portrays being cared for not as compassionate but as ‘torture’ – and there would be profits to be made out of poisons as well as medicines.
While using his mother as an example of someone making a positive choice in such matters, he says ‘“[t]he hospitals are filling up with people, many of them with dementia”’ – that these people are ‘“having their lives elongated in a very tortuous fashion.”’ He says that talking about the ‘“morbid topic”’ of ‘assisted death’ is ‘“not worse than a drawn-out medical death. That really is horrible.”’ This sounds very like an attempt to scare people who are in good health with stories of ‘terrible pain’ into signing advance directives while there is still time to prevent themselves from being medically ‘tortured’; and yet most people find that when their health starts to decline, which happens naturally with age – but also when they receive a terminal diagnosis – the first reaction is not to bring their lives to a premature end, but to live as long as possible, with appropriate help if necessary. But if they have signed an advance directive and lose the power to communicate, for example if they have a stroke, they may find their lives being cut off before they have a chance to recover.
So far, campaigners for ‘assisted dying’ have been reluctant to discuss such obvious problems, while avoiding advocating it for people who lack their mental powers – indeed, so many and so comprehensive are the ‘safeguards’ in their proposed laws that the only people who would ‘benefit’ from the ‘right to die’ are those who are not ill, let alone in the dying process, for whom the ‘right to die’ is anyway irrelevant. But as Mr Kennaway himself makes clear, this is a campaign not to help people die – hospices do that – but to kill people who are not dying or, like Charles II, taking ‘an unconscionable time dying’.
Mr Kennaway and his mother say they are “‘pro-choice”’, insisting that ‘no one will be obliged to self-euthanise”’; this may sound reassuring, but it would apply to people who are already vulnerable because they depend on others for their care; already they fear to ‘be a nuisance’ by asking for help, and to legalise ‘assisted dying’ would confirm their inner fears that they are indeed a burden on society, taking up hospital or care home beds desperately needed for those who might actually get better.
Despite this, Mr Kennaway dismisses fears expressed by Parliamentarians about old people being exploited should assisted suicide ever be legalised, claiming that an ‘unnamed Tory ex-minister, now in the Lords’ told him ‘“We’ve got to guard old people against unscrupulous relatives knocking them off for the money”’; this prompted him to look ‘“at whether there’d been any cases of children murdering their parents for pecuniary motives and I couldn’t find one. Yet I knew tons of children who were in agony by their parents’ death beds, with their mothers or fathers saying, ‘I’ve had enough, let me go’.” And yet if the law allows such persons to be killed, there will be plenty of such cases – which will, however, not be reported, because it will be legal and in time treated as perfectly normal. And if it is legal to kill them, presumably the law against people benefiting from a criminal act will no longer apply, and families will be able to inherit their elderly relative’s money before too much of it is spent on ‘torturing’ them with care.
Mr Kennaway must somehow have missed the story of Jeremy Bamber, who in 1986 was motivated by greed to kill his parents, his sister and her six-year-old twins, currently being dramatised on ITV as ‘White House Farm’. He must also have missed the many cases of elder abuse, highlighted by Dame Esther Rantzen in a campaign featured in the Telegraph just over a week ago in an interview with Ms Silverman herself (‘“It’s a secret crime” – Dame Esther Rantzen on the hidden abuse tearing older people’s lives apart’, Telegraph, January 20, 2020).
He must also have missed the case, only last year, of the 79-year-old dementia sufferer killed by her son who threw her off the balcony of her care home – although he was spared jail because the judge said he had ‘suffered enough’ after carrying out this ‘mercy killing’ (‘Mother thrown to her death was “mercy killing”’, Telegraph, September 21, 2019).
Mr Kennaway, who helpfully suggested that his mother go to a Swiss clinic to end her life, jokes with her about her not dying before the publication of his book, with its irreverent portrait of her as a ‘battleaxe’; nevertheless, he insists that ‘assisted dying’ is a serious subject which is, he claims, neglected because it is not a ‘vote-winner’: ‘Coupled with our innate squeamishness, it’s hard to mount a popular campaign’, and although ‘the issue occasionally rears its head, with a high profile case of someone seeking a change in the law, it quickly drops out of the limelight.’
This is because, having made their point, campaigners are reluctant to engage with the ‘“anti” people’ that Mrs Kennaway dismisses, regarding the appalling abuses happening in countries where assisted suicide has been legalised with ‘strict safeguards’ only for those safeguards to be dismantled and ‘provision’ extended to include people with dementia, people with other mental health problems, and even forced upon hospices that refuse to offer this ‘choice’.
Seemingly they also missed the news, reported only last week, that an attempt to legalise assisted suicide in the Isle of Man had failed, and that our own Government had rejected calls for a review into assisted suicide after strong opposition from MPs. Yes, the silence on this subject is truly deafening.
Paradoxically, although it might be comforting for those like Mrs Kennaway, living fulfilled, active, relatively comfortable lives to think about being killed, for the less fortunate, constant propaganda about ‘the right to die’ is deeply depressing. Far from facing the ‘torture’ of being cared for and for our plight to be taken seriously, disabled people are being tortured by the relentless campaign to persuade everyone that it would be grand for us if we were to be bumped off.
Nobody can force anyone to be treated, but at present our medical services presume that anyone who is unable to communicate would want to be treated – even those who attempt to commit suicide. The ‘right to die’ campaign, with its scare campaigns and rhetoric about ‘torture’, would remove this presumption towards preserving life as a good thing per se, and would divert doctors from caring to killing. Mrs Kennaway lives in France, and yet she wants to change the law in the UK, giving the impression that it would only affect her; but we cannot change the law for just one person. Hard cases make bad law, but Mrs Kennaway’s case is so good that it would make even worse law. In one sense, however, there is a ‘silence’ on this subject – from those who want the right to live. These are the distant voices that are not being heard amid the clamour of campaigns to kill them.