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Jun 14 2011

Choosing to die

Terry Pratchett was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and has made a programme, Choosing to die, about his enquiries into assisted suicide. It’s pretty difficult viewing: Pratchett visits the widow of a Belgian writer who, like him, had Alzheimer’s disease and had chosen to end his life. He visits a former taxidriver in a hospice with motor neuron disease, who had chosen not to die. The bulk of the programme is spent with two men who went to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where they were helped to die. Andrew, only a couple of years older than me, with multiple sclerosis and Peter, born in 1939, with motor neuron disease. The death of Peter is shown in full. It’s not this that is my abiding memory though, that will be of the courage and dignity of the wife and mother of these two dying men. Neither woman wants their loved one to go.

The striking thing for me was how both men appeared to be heading off to Switzerland before their time, for fear of not being able to go when they felt they had to. The current legislation seems to be wilfully sadistic, obliging early death for those that chose whilst holding out the threat of prosecution to the family.

The Swiss are allowed to be helped to die at home, whilst foreigners go to die in a small blue apartment in an industrial estate. Incongruously the shallow steps to the front door are protected by black and yellow safety tape: because if you’re going to die you don’t want to fall over and crack your head open. This seems a great pity since in the background you could see the snow clad Swiss Alps, a glorious place to die.

A number of members of my close family have died over the last ten years. I don’t think we’re an unusual family, we’ve discussed assisted dying, often in the aftermath of a death. My paternal grandparents both died in their nineties in retirement homes, very much reduced from their previous vigorous selves, moving gradually to death. My maternal grandparents both died at home, quite suddenly. My stepfather died at home in a hospital bed, cared for by my mum with the support of nurses. He’d known he was going to die since cancer stopped him eating a couple of months earlier. Mum is the bravest person I know.

The consensus in the family appears to be for assisted dying but I think we all know privately that as the law stands now it will not happen. We will be left to face what lingering or sudden deaths nature serves up to us, in the knowledge that modern medicine has got so much better at keeping us alive but not necessarily living.

This is one of the few places where my atheism collides with the established church: any time the right to die is discussed it appears to be a Christian or one of the Lords Spiritual who is called upon to make the case against: often citing the idea that my life is a gift from God, and that I have no right to dispose of it. Clearly for an atheist this is an argument discarded in a moment.

I may die in an accident tomorrow. I may hang on to the absolute end waiting to see what is over the the next ridge. Or maybe, when I am old and have had enough, I’ll want to go at a time and place of my choosing.

How I choose to die is none of your business – I won’t presume to choose for you.

6 comments

  1. billynojob

    >I think you capture the dilemma clearly and with great dignity. It's a pity that this has become a controversy played out on the field of religious belief, and I say that, as you know, despite the fact that I have such a faith.

    It is entirely untenable for a minority in our society to hold those without such faith to account as it were on this basis. The argument is inevitably "discarded in a moment" as you rightly say. This is sad, because there are serious arguments about what the consequences for society might be if our lives become negotiable rather than absolute. That has nothing to do with faith, because one can take the view that human life is an absolute for other reasons.

    As the ability to prolong life in ways that seem increasingly pointless advances, as it surely will, this is something we all have to face up to. Short-circuiting the issue by appealing to a belief I have, that you don't share, is as pointless as it is invalid.

  2. Phil

    >I always find this issue very difficult to discuss, because whilst I believe in the rights of an individual to choose how they live, this doesn't extend (at least to the same extent) to how they die.

    It's not so much that they shouldn't have the right, it's more a fear of the abuse that I feel will be the inevitable result. Not everyone belongs to a loving stable family environment. Also, I'm not sure where you 'draw the line', what kind of disease qualifies or will it be open to all? Will a 70 year old feeling alone and depressed be helped on their way? A 60 year old? etc.

    These questions seem tasteless (ghoulish?) – for which I apologise – and it's why I expect when this issue is in the news they traditionally go to someone religious for a more palatable response – albeit one which any non-religious person (such as myself) would disagree.

  3. SomeBeans

    >@billynojob yes, it's not really clear to me how widely opposition to a "right to die" is a Christian position, it is simply they who are brought forward in debate. Life hasn't been a Christian absolute in the not very distant past – see capital punishment, to which I am absolutely opposed on principle rather than pragmatic grounds.

    @Phil in the end it does come down to ghoulish details. I don't think we should rule it out because abuse is possible but the question of who should be "allowed" assisted suicide is difficult. The absolutist liberal position is to say we don't judge the conditions, simply that there is no coercion but I feel uncomfortable with this.

    Perhaps ultimately concern about these details is unimportant because it's seems possible that in places where there is "right to die" available it is little used and simply serves as a reassuring backstop.

  4. Mama Lu

    >I don't see any dilemma for an atheist. Believers have it much worse, suicide being counted as murder. If you do not want to live, choose suicide and do not mix the government in your scheme. Any govenrment assisted euthanasia is morally wrong, not to say evil. I'm Jewish and remember; you and your allies in this matter simply do not wish to remember the role of goverments in assisted murder of the infirm and the Jews.

  5. usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    >Suicide is always an option for the atheist, or anyone for that matter. What is to stop it? Giving it the dignity of being assisted is the crux, without those assisting being criminalized.

    Phil speaks of the fear of abuse. There are members of society that others may feel would be better off dead.In fact, one such organization of handicapped individuals refer to themselves as "not dead yet". They live in fear of being "assisted" beyond their will.

    Perhaps one day society will deem those they consider "ballestexitenz" better off dead because of their expense without contribution.

  6. SomeBeans

    >@mama lu – the government is already involved – it prohibits medics from providing any assistance in suicide.

    @usethebrainsgodgiveyou – I think your first paragraph is spot on. In the programme Andrew had previously attempted suicide by using hoarded medication and had "failed".

    There's a difference between assisting someone who has made their own decision to die and encouraging someone else to kill themselves because *you* think *their* life isn't worth living and to me is clearly wrong. I'm writing here about my decisions about me.

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