Thursday, 16 June 2011

Choosing to Die

Last Monday Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die was shown on BBC 2. If you haven't seen it, then I'd get to iplayer quick before it disappears.

Sir Terry Pratchett followed a number of people who had decided that their quality of life wasn't great enough to continue living and they wanted help to commit suicide. In Britain, assisted suicide is a crime and the only place Britons can do this is in Switzerland, through the Dignitas Clinic.

Pratchett suffers from Alzheimer's. There will be a time when words are no longer his to command. He's already lost the ability to type and has to dictate to his assistant, Rob Wilkins. He has difficulty reading and had to have Tony Robinson read the BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture he had written. He has the view that when his condition reaches the point where he can no longer write books he no longer wants to live, hence his interest in Dignitas.

As Pratchett warned at the beginning, it wasn't easy viewing. The documentary showed the onscreen death of Peter Smedley, a motor neurone disease sufferer, which has resulted in hundreds of complaints to the BBC.

But this part wasn't the part that I found most disturbing.

The trouble with assisted suicide is that the person doing it has to be signed off first by a doctor as being sound of mind. He has to be fully aware of what he is doing, and able to perform the act by himself. This means that it isn't a person who is truly suffering who is committing suicide, but one who will be suffering in the future.

This leads to a great problem: how do you know when the time is right? How do you decide when the point is to take your life? Leave it too long, let your condition become too bad, and you won't be allowed to do it. Do it too soon and you're cutting off your life prematurely.

There have been complaints from pro-live groups that Choosing to Die was 'pro-suicide propaganda'. It didn't come across as that to me. Pratchett's assistant Rob appeared to share the same concerns I had - that  people who could still have reasonable quality lives for some time to come were ending them prematurely.

I'm not against suicide. I think a person has the right to end their life when they see fit. If I end up suffering from Alzheimer's then I don't want to live as a vegetable. But I'd want to live until the very last moment.

In the TV show Boston Legal (which if you never watched, shame on you!) William Shatner's character Denny Crane suffers from Alzheimer's. His solution to the problem of deciding When is that he has his best friend, Alan Shore, promise that when Alan thinks Denny has deteriorated beyond recognition, Alan will shoot Denny in the head.

This is how I'd want to go out.

Obviously this then passes the buck onto Alan who has to make the incredibly difficult decision of when to pull the trigger. Maybe if a list of criteria was written out while Denny was fully aware? Could someone independent be hired to perform the act when all the boxes on the list were ticked?

This is still not without glaring problems, I know. Maybe given time I (someone?) can come up with something better. But in order for this blog post to go up before the documentary is taken off iplayer then it'll have to do.

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