Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday 5 April 2010

In praise of morphine

Last week I found myself heading into town with enough morphine to render the entire neighbourhood comfortably numb for a week. These days, it turns out you can't just 'empty some dull opiate to the drains' (hands up all those who did Keats for 'O' level); you have to take it back to the pharmacy to be checked in when it's no longer needed.

My only personal experience of morphine was many years ago, courtesy of a minor illness in a land of rather less rigorous legislation. The doctor gave me some highly concentrated liquid and instructions to take 'two drops in water every four hours' - thereby ensuring that the rest of the holiday passed in a blissful blur.

On arrival back in the UK I found the vial had broken in my suitcase and, not being sufficiently dependent to want to extract the precious liquid from a bagful of dirty socks, I gave up emulating the more florid romantic poets and returned to everyday life.

But there is comfort in knowing that oblivion is available, should it one day become necessary - at least under current ethics and legislation. The doctrine of double effect allows doctors to administer a dose of morphine that may hasten death so long as their primary aim is to relieve pain in terminally ill patients and death is therefore a side-effect of that process.

It's reassuring to think that when death is near and inevitable, one will be permitted and aided 'to cease upon the midnight with no pain'. What worries me now is that, following recent high-profile cases of doctors giving overdoses, this comfort may be removed from those who really need it. Given the tendency towards knee-jerk legislation in this country, I think there is a very real danger this may happen in the near future.

I hate to think that one day I'll regret returning all those little brown bottles.

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