Terry Pratchett breaks another taboo

Author present as incurably ill man dies on camera.

Well, my admiration for Terry Pratchett went up another notch last night.

His programme on assisted suicide was humbling and difficult to watch, but the bravery of the people involved was utterly remarkable. How they didn’t run around screaming at their terrible situations is beyond me, but they faced their own ends and the ends of those they loved with astonishing stoicism. 

I was struck, as Peter Smedley slipped into sleep and then death by how there is always that brief, distressing struggle as the body fights for life, and then peace. Allowing him to do this was the last act of love his wife of 40 years could show him, as she now faced the rest of her life alone.

A priest on the programme that followed said the atmosphere in the room was coercive, but I saw nothing of the kind – I doubt anyone could coerce a man as sharp and tough as Peter Smedley and I think those present would have been delighted if he had changed his mind and decided the time was not quite right, especially his wife. 

Being with someone when they die feels very intrusive, both on TV and in real life. I was present when my neighbour R died of a heart attack, right in front of his wife, as the crash team fought to revive him. My husband helped move his body, and I helped choose the clothes he would wear in his coffin. It was an unwonted privilege, and it felt the same watching Peter die – in what should be a deeply private moment – on camera.  

Sir Terry, of course, is going to come in for a lot of stick after this, but the debate on assisted suicide has GOT to continue. It cannot be right for so many people to have to trek to Switzerland to make a good end, and British law is still stuck in the days when people believed their lives belonged to God and not to themselves.

It is not illegal (any more, thank heavens) to commit suicide, and if the proper safeguards are put in place, I see no reason why assisted suicide should not also be legal – why should it be illegal to help someone commit a legal act? The fact is, it is done every single day in hospices, hospitals and care homes around the country, quietly, by doctors and nurses who face prosecution for doing so. 

I don’t believe legalising assisted suicide will lead to a glut of vulnerable people being pressured to kill themselves. There is absolutely no evidence for this, even in countries that have had such regulations in place for decades. In fact, having the option of assisted suicide appears to act as a suicide deterrent to desperate people. And for all that people harp on the idea that some people might be pressured to die so that their relatives can inherit, few seem to mention the stupendous amount of money some people are making out of keeping alive those who want to die.  

Life is complicated. I have Dutch friends who freely admit that it was the worst day of their lives when G’s father’s suicide day came. He was terminally ill with cancer (being terminally or incurably ill is required for assisted suicide under Dutch law) and chose to end his life with a dose of curare, administered by a doctor. They said it was like attending an execution and they themselves would never put anyone else through it.

Years later, when G’s wife, S, was stricken with a catastrophic stroke that left her tetraplegic, her instant reaction was to ask for assisted suicide. However, she was refused because she didn’t meet the required criteria. That decision is reviewed with every subsequent year (the legal question is whether her illness is incurable) but by and large, S has since come to terms with her condition.

These are the kinds of horrendous questions that people in the real world have to face, and we shouldn’t be making their decisions for them. Steven Hawking feels he can make a contribution to the world even with locked-in syndrome. Peter Smedley clearly didn’t – he had been a man who had flown planes and raced cars. He wanted to go while he was still ‘himself’. The real sadness is that if he had been able to have an assisted suicide in Britain, he might have been able to live for months more, then die at home surrounded by his family rather than hauling his sick body to Switzerland to die at the hands of a stranger. 

All in all, an extremely thought-provoking programme, and kudos to the makers for making it, and the BBC for showing it.


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