Whose life is it anyway?

The case centres around Ken Harrison’s determination to exercise his right to die rather than live in a state of physical helplessness. As a result of a road accident, Mr Harrison suffered a multitude of injuries, which included a severed spinal cord. The prognosis was bleak – he had limited facial movements and was totally paralysed form the neck downwards. Throughout his time in hospital he maintains, much to the medical profession’s objection, his right to have the choice whether to live or die.

The issues involved in the case are more poignant because of the nature of Ken’s personality. He is described by Dr Emerson as ‘an intelligent, sensitive and articulate man.’ He amazes the doctors with his wit and calm rational decisions. ‘I have never met anyone like Mr Harrison before’, retorted Dr Scott. He argues his right, with power and persuasion, to be discharged form the hospital to die. He insists that it is his right, for he alone knows what is best for him, to chose to ‘die quietly and with as much dignity’ as he can muster and he does ‘not want to go on living with so much effort for so little result.

’ Mr Harrison uses his profession, sculpting, as a comparison to his life to try and change Dr Travers’ opinion. He explains that when a customer comes into his studios to buy something, they would want to ask for his ‘professional opinion’, but if they were a mature adult they would ‘reserve the right’ to choose for themselves.

The case against Ken’s wishes to have treatment removed is put by various members of the medical profession. It is a fact, that all the people in the medical profession take the Hippocratic Oath which means they must do all in their power to preserve life. So, ken has an uphill struggle to persuade them against the ‘forces of the medical bureaucracy.’

Dr Scott does not know how to deal with Ken’s forceful demands, so she states that he is depressed and prescribes the tranquiliser Valium. Ken, ‘who prefers to keep his consciousness clear’ refuses the tranquilisers but the ‘heavy brigade’ (as Ken calls the ‘sister’) are brought in to administer an injection against his wishes. It seems that the doctors are unable to cope with Ken’s decisions and so they insist he is mentally unstable and a psychiatric case. Dr Emerson says he is ‘not in a sufficiently healthy metal state to make a rational decision.’ Psychiatrists are brought in to try to verify the doctors’ case in the hope that if they prove him unstable then they would keep him in hospital ‘as a person needing treatment under the Mental Health Act of 1959’. Ken claims that a wish to die is not necessarily a symptom of insanity and eventually wins his case.

The fictional story of Ken Harrison and his efforts to try and convince the medical and legal professions of his right to die are similar to the true case of Mrs Diane Pretty. She has motor neurone disease, an incurable disease causing progressive muscle weakening including respiratory failure. She wanted an assurance that her husband would not be prosecuted if he assisted her to commit suicide. Her legal representative in the case at the High Court said, ‘The terrible irony of this case is that the very disease which causes her suffering prevents her from taking her life unaided’. Just as in Ken’s case, she wanted to control how and when she died, sparing her the suffering and indignity she would otherwise endure.

The different outcomes of the two cases show the controversy and mental anguish that exists. It seems that the medical profession could accept that preserving life is not the ultimate answer, after all they already take decisions on whether to switch off life-support machines. However, until laws are changed the legal profession will always class assisted suicide as murder even in the most pitiable of circumstances.HHhhas

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