Last night, the BBC broadcast a documentary on what I thought would be assisted suicide. One of the things this programme taught me is that, actually it’s assisted dying. Now this may seem like semantics to you, but I think it’s important to make the distinction, suicide has a lot of negative connotations which I believe we need to move away from in order to have a grown up debate on the subject. The documentary, presented by author Terry Pratchett, made it clear that the decision which those who wanted to die took, was a clear, cognizant and ultimately, personal choice. These people had chosen to die, with their families around them and with dignity.
Assisted dying is a very emotive subject. Maybe on the one hand it is through centuries of religious conditioning that we believe in the sanctity of life. Or as human beings we have an inbuilt will to survive, like any other animal and to take our own life seems to be an anathema. For those in favour of assisted dying it’s about an individuals right to determine the course of their own life.
Here’s my review of the programme. I missed the opening few minutes, but filling in the gaps, I guess that Terry Pratchett (TP) explained his situation, that he is pro assisted dying, and is himself suffering from a degenerative and incurable disorder in Alzheimers. It seems that the programme was a way for him to look at the choices available to him, should he chose to end his own life, before his condition causes him to deteriorate and leaves him unable to make his own choice.
I picked the programme up with TP meeting with the Smedleys. Peter was an ex hotelier living in Guernsey and suffered from Motor Neuron disease, which affects muscles, eventually leading to difficulties with breathing, speaking and swallowing. Peter seemed to be reasonably healthy, but was fully aware of what was awaiting him in the future. With this knowledge, he had discussed with his wife and had decided that the best option for him was to attend the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and end his life, in the way he felt was appropriate. His wife, although not 100% comfortable with the decision supported her husband in his decision.
We also met Andrew Colgan, who suffered from M.S. a disease where the average life expectancy of suffers is 5-10 years. Andrew had already tried to commit suicide twice, and had survived. He felt that Dignitas was his best choice, and despite his familys wishes decided to travel to Zurich to die.
In between Peter and Andrew’s stories was that of a London Cabbie, who also suffered from M.N.D., but who had opted for hospice treatment. He was typical London boy and wanted to fight to the bitter end, his attitude was “lets have another throw of the dice”. Later in the Newsnight debate that followed, the Bishop of Exeter told of his support of the hospice movement and the right to “live with dignity”.
The programme followed both Peter & Andrew to Zurich and their last few days. It was highly emotional viewing, although both men showed extraordinary courage and fortitude, it was the attitudes of their families that struck me the most. Andrew’s mother tells TP, that whilst she wants to spend more time with her son, that it is her “selfish” desire and she has to let her son decide. And Peter’s wife holding his hand as he died, still not 100% comfortable with her husbands decision, but respecting his right to choose.
In all honesty, I have to admit that I was already in favour of assisted dying, and this programme reinforced my opinions that people must have the right to choose especially when faced with such difficult circumstances.
Detractors of assisted dying use some of the following arguments to dissuade us from having the choice to determine our own futures. The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, said in response to the programme it “was propaganda on one side.” And “life is a gift and has infinite value”. The bishop was not the only one to accuse the programme of propaganda, several other pro life charities voiced their concerns as well. In response to the accusations of propaganda, well to some extent they are correct, we are left in no doubt at the end of the programme what the mindset of TP is. However, throughout the programme it was shown, time and again that this was those peoples choice. And importantly, that there is another way. It was interesting to see in Dignitas’ offices the number of folders of people who have been there, but who have not taken up the option of assisted dying. Maybe they feel comfortable that they are provided for should their conditions become such that death is their only option, or actually deciding that like the cabbie, they want another roll of the dice.
In terms of life being a gift and having infinite value, well, I disagree on that first point. A gift is something that brings joy and happiness to the recipient. All life is precious, and should be treated as such, and who better to make that decision than the person living it. Life is not a gift when you are stuck in a bed, unable to feed yourself, wash yourself, and control your bodily functions. Life is not a gift when those whom you love so very dearly visit you, and you can’t remember who they are, when you can’t even recognise them.
I respect the rights of those people to die in a hospice, and agree with the Bishop of Exeter, that we must invest more in hospice and palliative care for those who are terminal or who can no longer look after themselves. The hospice movement is a vital part of the care system in the UK and it needs investment in order for it to continue to flourish. That should not detract though, from the right of someone who wishes to die to do that. If I can choose to end my life in a hospice, surely I should have the right choose to end my life, at a time and place of my choosing.
The documentary, as I have mentioned, was followed by a Newsnight debate. Well, frankly, this is where I found myself getting quite angry. Particularly at Liz Carr, a comedienne and campaigner for rights for those with disabilities. I found her arguments to be extremely flawed and actually felt that she had no real grasp of the situation being debated. She frequently espoused the view that if we had assisted dying in the UK that the disabled would be running scared from their own families who would put them down. That because of the financial crisis people wouldn’t want the burden of caring for someone. As a disabled campaigner, I of course expect her argue vociferously for rights for disabled people. However, it seemed to me that she completely disregarded the rights of those who are terminally or incurably ill. I found it truly awful that she has such a low opinion of humanity! That we live in a society desperate to do away with cripples to free up bed space and funds for those who need them. There will always be people who are nefarious and will try to “off” family members for an inheritance – history is littered with them.
There was a slightly disturbing element to the documentary though. Apparently, 21% of the people who chose to end their lives in Dignitas, do so because they are “weary of life”, not because they have an incurable or terminal illness. This was something that the film makers did not go into a great deal of detail about. I hope, and expect that the law has legislated for such persons so that all other avenues are explored and appropriate counselling has been given before they are allowed to terminate their own life.
In the UK, this is where Parliament really has to step up. We need good legislation that protects people from the greedy and malicious and that stops the abuse of the system. The current system of turning a blind eye will only suffice so far. How will current legislation react if I took one of my parents to Dignitas, because it was their choice, but my brother disagreed and forced the police to enact the law and prosecute me?
If Liz really paid attention to the programme she would have learnt 2 things. 1) The Swiss have legislation that requires doctors to assess the state, both physical and mental, of the person requesting assistance and 2) that you can only use the services of Dignitas if you are able to administer the drugs yourself. They cannot be administered for you by a medical professional, family member or anyone else. Right up to the point you take the lethal dose of Barbiturates, you can say no.
In summation, I am fully supportive of the campaign to bring assisted dying to the United Kingdom. It seems to me a basic human right that I have determination as far as my life is concerned, indeed, it is enshrined in the European convention of Human rights. It seems somewhat sick to me that in a society where it is wrong to leave an animal in a state of suffering, where it is acceptable to “put an animal to sleep” in order to end it’s suffering; that we cannot grant that right to our fellow humans, that we have to insist on prolonging their suffering because of the “Sanctity of life”. Dying is part of the cycle of life and we need to break this last taboo and start having open and honest debate in the UK about assisted dying, I see this programme as a good starting place.