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An Early Exit
Nathan Davies

Sometimes, when my mind has a chance to wander, I occasionally catch myself thinking about the future; what my life might be like should I live long enough to be old and grey. These moments typically consist of mental pictures of me as a grandparent (even though I have yet to decide whether I want to have children of my own), and most often feature a half-hearted argument between my partner and I over whether we read some of my comics to the grandchildren, or one of her books with dragons in them. I never picture myself as alone, or infirm, or diseased, or out of touch, and yet I know from watching relatives and neighbours grow older, that the passage of time can bring many, if not all of these things. So, if it is my destiny to steadily lose my faculties during my more advanced years, perhaps even to the point where I am unable to attend the simplest of tasks myself, or require some form of prolonged medical assistance just to 'get by', I have to ask myself; do I want to live to be 100?

With the advent of new medicines and technologies that may help our bodies resist decay as well as disease, not to mention our increased awareness of how we actually age, now, more people than ever before are seriously contemplating this very question. Most look positively on the prospect of longer lives as a dream to be realised in the near future, but for others it would be more like a nightmare; one that many of them are already striving to live without. These people aren't looking to the future; they are living in the present, and, suffering unbearably from the likes of cancer, want to die.

Unfortunately for them, there is currently very little provision for their wishes, as most governments and medical authorities still prefer to avoid the controversies that surround Euthanasia and medically assisted suicide. Only one state in America has made the latter (differentiated from euthanasia by the fact that the doctor only provides the means to end the life rather than actually administering it) legal, and when a similar law was passed in the Northern Territory in Australia it was overturned within eighteen months. But, things are slowly changing. After roughly 30 years of unofficially tolerating euthanasia, the Dutch authorities have begun the process of actually legalising it, claiming that by bringing it out into the open, not only can it be better controlled, but also the wishes of patients can be properly attended to. The guidelines that have been in place since 1993, setting the conditions on who could ask for self-termination and how their request should be assessed have been formalised to ensure against Shipman-esque abuses, and there will also be a provision included for a 'living will'; allowing those unable to ask for death when the time comes to ask for it in writing during an earlier, more lucid, period in their lives.

For those in favour of consented mercy killing amongst human beings this is a great step forward. However, there is some concern over what the future of euthanasia and medically assisted suicide will be. Despite strict regulations designed to make the practices available only to patients suffering from a persistent medical or psychological condition, a doctor in The Netherlands last year helped former senator Edward Brongersma to die, simply because he believed that at the age of 86, his life ceased to have any meaning. Although there will now be an appeal against the verdict, the doctor was exonerated of all criminal charges in relation to the case, and has, by his actions, potentially established a precedent for the sort of personal and socially motivated mercy killings that have, up until now, been the province of science fiction.

While, admittedly, we are still a far cry from the scenarios represented in such films as Soylent Green and Logan's Run, it would seem to be the next logical step (should euthanasia become more widely accepted) to allow the elderly, as well as the afflicted, to decide on how they wish to leave this world and to make the according arrangements ahead of time. If we can ever get past the ethical and religious resistance to the principal of euthanasia, then perhaps it can be used as a way of maintaining some degree of dignity at the end of one's life, as well as regaining a sense of control; two things that our older generations probably feel that they experience less of in their autumn years. Who knows, by the time I'm old enough to draw a pension, final 'good-byes' might be said face-to-face, rather than posthumously at awkward and upsetting funeral services. Knowing what it's like to lose someone close to you and not being able to say good-bye, I don't think you could put a price on it.

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