How to kill a loved one

It’s more than fifty years since I drew my first breath, an event no doubt witnessed by my mother, having just given birth to me. Some years later I sat with my mother’s hand clasped in mine as she drew her final breath. She had what I suppose might be called a ‘good innings’, though she scored few notable runs and was struck by the ball more often than she would have liked. So far as I know she had no awareness during those final moments, but it was what one might call a dignified end, and made more so by the care and dedication of the hospice staff who were simply marvellous.

She was not a churchgoer, my mother, she carried her faith privately, but in those final weeks and days she spoke often of how much she looked forward to re-joining my father who had died twenty-odd years earlier. Though I’m not a man of faith myself, who knows, perhaps she got her wish.

That same hospice announced recently that it would close in two years’ time, an announcement that met with public outcry, and the decision has since been put on hold. My instinct is that it will indeed close, but only after enough time has elapsed for local people to become resigned to the idea — that’s how these things usually work, after all, with unpopular ideas. We shall see. But what a wonderful thing a hospice is, a place where those who are terminally ill can spend their final days in relative comfort, treated with care and tenderness. We can’t all choose how we will spend our last days, but my mother’s passing is one I think I could accept for myself and for those I care about.

My brother’s passing, by contrast, was at a time and in a place and by a method of his own choosing. He died alone and without dignity, his innings cut tragically short.

Sometimes we can choose our death, and sometimes we can’t.

Which brings me to the topic of assisted suicide, which has been in the news again recently. It’s a topic that I’m sure won’t go away any time soon. There’s a groundswell of feeling around this, creating a pressure that I’m convinced will eventually blow away all obstacles in its path. We’re not there yet, but my instinct is that it’s coming.

People are demanding the right to choose the time and place of their death.

People are demanding the right to assistance in doing so.

I’m not generally a big fan of rights. Too often I find them to be transient, arbitrary, or politically motivated, and I dislike the whole mind-set we’ve developed whereby we accept rights as privileges handed down to us by someone else. Who the hell is anyone to tell me, or you, whether or not we can die?

One of the problems with assisted suicide though, I think, is in the assistance. Repeatedly I hear this topic discussed in terms of doctors or other medical staff assisting someone in dying. This seems to be a reversal of what we have long traditionally expected from our medical professionals. The focus has always been on them preserving life, where there is life to be preserved. It’s asking a lot, perhaps, to flick a moral switch and have them start sending people on their way. But if we’re not to ask this of our medical professionals, if we wish to keep separate those who preserve life from those who terminate it, how else should we to facilitate assisted suicide?

If we consider the hospice, we already have an environment in which people are, if not actually sent on their way, at least made comfortable for the journey. And perhaps that’s what we should be steering towards, places dedicated to assisted suicide, places where our loved ones can be despatched, processed, teased off their mortal coil, where live but fading people enter and dead people leave.

And that in turn raises the question: How ought we to despatch our loved ones, exactly? By what method?

Now, I appreciate that thinking about such details can be unpleasant, but at some point the question must be asked, and must be answered. If this is a subject you find difficult then this is the point where you should stop reading and do something else instead, because I’m now going to talk about killing people.

The point of assisted suicide must surely be to bring about a rapid death with minimal suffering, minimising pain and distress. There are of course numerous ways to achieve this, and a two-stage process perhaps offers an optimal solution. The first stage would involve rendering the subject unconscious and insensible to pain but not necessarily dead (stunned). In the second stage the subject would be brought to the point of death (killed).

Several effective methods already exist for stunning. One of the simplest and cleanest is electrical stunning in which current is passed across the brain or heart, rendering the subject unconscious. An alternative to electrical stunning is asphyxiation using CO2 gas, the subject typically rendered unconscious within less than 30 seconds. A further alternative is blunt force trauma through the use of a captive bolt pistol with a non-penetrating bolt. The pistol is applied to the subject’s forehead and produces a severe non-penetrating concussive force to deliver a shallow but forceful blow, concussion rendering the subject quickly unconscious.

Once the subject is unconscious, they can be brought to the point of death through exsanguination, or “bleeding out”. Methods include a cut to the throat, or inserting a chest stick into the subject’s chest close to the heart, either of which will allow main veins or arteries to bleed.

I’m sure there are people who feel uncomfortable thinking about their loved ones being stunned with a captive bolt pistol before having their throat cut, but these methods are in fact already in use. They’re used to slaughter the animals we eat. Pigs, cows, goats and sheep are already despatched using processes such as those above. In fact, most of us probably not only have eaten, but continue to regularly eat, animals killed using these methods, in the form of steak, sausages, bacon, burgers, chops, and so on.

These methods are considered humane, and as they are considered humane, if pigs, cows, goats and sheep already have the right to be stunned and bled, surely we deserve nothing less than the same.

Of course, if you think these methods are not appropriate for your loved ones, if you think these methods are not humane, then you might want to think about how the animal on your plate tomorrow was despatched, processed, teased off its mortal coil.