There’s nowt so queer as folk. We expect Scousers’ ‘mawkish sentimentality’; and the red-tops to bleed for mothers who kill ‘with love in their heart’. But what we do not expect – well Dr No did not expect – was a doctor going online with an account of how he too assisted suicide with a “secret gift to a dying friend’ and had ‘never for a moment regretted’ his actions.
The tale – and tale it is: it is most carefully crafted – nonetheless plays a little out of tune to Dr No’s medical ears. The wording is medical, and yet not medical at the same time. Little details, such as the difficulty in establishing the lethal dose of the chosen drug (easy: just google ‘phenobarbital lethal dose’), and the nervous visit to Boots to get the private prescription made up, just don’t quite ring true. Could it be, Dr No found himself wondering, that this mawkish account of mail order assisted suicide was in fact not fact, but faction, or even pure fiction, penned to fan the flames of calls for a relaxation of the law on assisted suicide?
Certainly, if the comments are anything to go by, the flames have been fanned. Overwhelmingly, with very few exceptions, they praise the noble doctor’s actions. In fact, the praise is so overwhelming, with so few dissenting voices, that it seems possible (though not of course proven) that this is an orchestrated response, easily enough organised by way of an email network. At one point, Dr No even found himself wondering whether the Torygraph was itself part of the orchestra or – God forbid – the Conductor. There was certainly some jiggery-pokery going on – at one point, comments were appearing and disappearing faster than a conjuror’s cards.
Be the orchestration as it may, what concerns Dr No is that the flood of praise is praise for the most dodgy of practices. Here we have a doctor who offers – he says he offered because she did not ask – to help not a patient, but a distant friend, kill herself, without even so much as seeing her. It is all done at an easy remove, by a postal supply of a lethal prescription. At their final phone call, he remarks he ‘had a terrible difficulty knowing how to end the conversation’. As well he might – the usual pleasantries: ‘take care’, ‘au revoir’ even ‘goodbye’ don’t quite strike the right note. To Dr No, it seems even more of a difficulty that he didn’t have the same ‘terrible difficulty’, not over how to end the conversation, but how to end her life.
Now: wise doctors don’t treat their friends. Wise doctors don’t prescribe without seeing the patient. Wise doctors don’t accept a declaration of suicidal intent without considering the wider clinical picture. Wise doctors don’t guesstimate – as he did – a critical dose. Wise doctors don’t help kill their patients. And – tellingly – ‘wise’ doctors who do help kill don’t tell.
Which brings us back to what is this story really about? Why was it written and published? Perhaps the clue is in the last sentence, a thinly veiled Call to Spartacus:
‘I wonder if any of my medical friends would help me in this way if I asked them to’.
Clever. If we’re all doing it, then we are all Spartacus, and none can be tried. And the pro-right to die lobby would get, err, a powerful shot in the arm.