Why preserve a life with no meaning?

I haven’t been able to talk or write about the so-called “right to die” since my wife of more than 30 years died six years ago. For several years Linda had been complaining about severe pain in her right side. Investigations had led nowhere. She was sent for a routine ultrasound and I can still see the look on the doctor’s face and hear the sound of hospital panic. This time there was no missing the huge soft-tissue sarcoma that had strangled a kidney and attached itself to her aorta.

The seven-hour operation was successful. For a brief spell all seemed well. Then they scanned her chest again and discovered that the cancer had spread to her lungs after all. It was inoperable. The specialist told her with genuine kindness that soft-tissue sarcomas are only treatable by surgery and that chemotherapy rarely helps. He suggested that she enjoyed life while she was relatively without symptoms and then came back for palliative treatment.

Linda would have none of this. If chemo could help in 5 per cent of cases, why shouldn’t she be one of the 5 per cent? It did help and bought her two more years of life. She never complained about the treatment and showed an indomitable will to live.

She was also extremely angry. She was furious at being deprived of the opportunity of seeing our first grandchild grow up, at not seeing our son marry his fiancée, of not being present when our younger daughter graduated from rabbinic training college and of never knowing our son-in-law to be. Two years or so after the operation, she had a slight accident in her car, which damaged the wing mirror. She knew something wasn’t right. The cancer had spread to her brain and she agreed to a further operation. The surgeon was sure he had successfully removed the tumour. Linda knew otherwise.

What followed were episodes of loss of balance, passing out and growing disorientation. For the first time she wasn’t sure that she wanted to fight on. But she did. And then her condition deteriorated. She was taken to hospital. Nobody could say quite what was wrong. She came home. She knew that she was dying.

She spoke one by one to the people that she wanted to speak to, telling them how they could, in some small measure, compensate for her children’s loss of their mother and for her future grandchildren’s loss of their grandmother.

And she made me promise. “I feel horrible, wretched,” she said. “There will come a point where I won’t want to go on. Once that point is reached,” she said, “make sure that I have the necessary dose of diamorphine to go quickly.” I promised.

Not many days afterwards she began to lose consciousness and lapsed into meaningless, rambling speech. I called the doctor. He examined her perfunctorily and said: “Do you want me to take her into hospital?” Before I could reply, she said the only coherent words she had said in several hours: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad” (Hear, Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One) — the final affirmation of a dying Jew. I knew immediately what she was saying to me. She had had enough. She wanted to die. The doctor left. She fell into a coma. I panicked. I had made her a promise and now I must keep it. Where do I go for help? Where would I get the drugs from?

Fortunately she died within 12 hours of losing consciousness.

Linda and I were/are (English tenses fail at this point) both religious people. We took God and the sanctity of life really seriously. We are part of a religious tradition that is strict about the sanctity of life but also compassionate. It never occurred to either of us that what Linda wanted was wrong, unethical or irreligious. What kind of God would want life to be prolonged beyond the point of endurance and meaning?

Six years later, it seems clearer and clearer that this is a widely held view, both among those of faith and those who are not religious. The ability to prolong life has brought with it many benefits but it has also brought with it largely unforeseen consequences — the many ways in which we can keep people alive beyond the point where that life has any meaning either to the person dying or to those around them.

Medical progress has heaped upon us huge responsibilities and profound dilemmas. I would have kept faith with Linda had it been necessary and administered the fatal injection. Had it meant prison, then so be it — though it’s hard to believe that sending me to prison would have been of benefit to anyone. It isn’t reasonable to ask doctors, dedicated to saving life, to take the responsibility on themselves if they have personal ethical qualms.

I can also understand that there are elderly people who fear becoming an intolerable burden. But the person who mattered most was Linda.

Linda was convinced that there are circumstances in which people can and must be trusted; that to hasten death when life is not life is an act of compassion, not a sin. As always — well, almost always — I agree with her.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism.