Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The privilege of a peaceful death

I use the word privilege with a certain trepidation here because a peaceful and natural death should not be merely a privilege in an affluent country that can afford decent medical and palliative care for its citizens. Earlier this month, after 28 years in a coma, a 76-year-old woman, Martha von Bulow, died at her New York nursing home. The cause of her collapse in 1980 was the subject of a number of sensational court cases and a Hollywood film, with her husband convicted first and then acquitted at a second trial, of trying to murder her using insulin injections.

She never regained consciousness and was diagnosed as being in a Persistent Vegetative State, but unlike Terri Schiavo, she was cared for until her death and nobody succeeded in having her starved to death with the blessing of the media. Caring for a vulnerable person (and there is no one more vulnerable than a person in a coma) should be regarded as a loving duty but in a society where human life is held cheap, there is little love and little sense of duty. As Ghandi said, the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest members.