BBC film shows man being helped to die

In the programme 'Choosing to die', novelist Sir Terry Pratchett witnessed a man being helped to commit suicide. Do we have the right to choose when we die?

The BBC made headlines this week when it screened Choosing to Die – a controversial film that looked at assisted suicide by showing us one.

The programme was hosted by the fantasy novelist, Sir Terry Pratchett. Why? Because he has Alzheimer's disease, and there'll come a time, he says, when he will wish to die, 'peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.'

And that's the problem. According to British law, when you die is not in your control; nature must decide when your suffering ends. But Pratchett says everyone has the right to choose their moment and used this programme to state his case.

The film showed Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old hotel owner, travelling from his home in Guernsey to Switzerland and taking a lethal dose of drugs given to him by the Dignitas staff.

He suffered from motor neurone disease, which affects the body rather than the mind; he could barely stand. 'It's a beastly and undignified business,' he said of the condition.

The cameras revealed Smedley sitting on a sofa. He politely thanked those around him and shook Pratchett's hand. He drank the poison and made some gasping noises before falling deeply asleep. He was then shown dead, without viewers having seen his last breath. His wife Christine watched stoically, holding back the tears until he was gone.

While many praised the sensitive handling of the issue, others were critical of the film. Liz Carr, a disability campaigner, said it was pro-suicide propaganda and that she was surprised the BBC had made it.

'I and many other disabled older and terminally-ill people are quite fearful of what legalising assisted suicide would do and mean.'

She fears that if assisted suicide is made legal, pressure will be put on the old and unwell by relatives who don't want to face the cost of their care.

Pratchett admits that his own wife wants to take care of him until the end and doesn't want him to take his own life. He also met a taxi driver who had motor neurone disease and, after considering Dignitas, chose to live out his days in a hospice.

But Pratchett wants to make that choice himself. 'I know the time will come when words will fail me,' he said. 'Then, I don't want to go on living.'

For and against

Those against changing the law on assisted suicide say current practice both enshrines the value of each human life and protects the vulnerable from exploitation.

Others, like Terry Pratchett, say that the individual's right to choose when they die must come before all other considerations.

You Decide

  1. 'To choose when you die is a human right.' Yes or no?
  2. 'TV should not show real people dying.' Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Create two mini-dramas, called 'Two sides of the coin'. The first, in which a family member is trying to convince an old woman that it would be better for everyone if she died. The second, in which a person in great pain with no hope of recovery is explaining to his family and friends why they want to be allowed to die now.
  2. After research, in about two hundred words, write the law you believe this country should have for assisted suicide.

Some People Say...

“Helping someone to die is as bad as murder.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are British politicians calling for change in the law?
Not openly, despite a recent YouGov poll showing 86% of British people support the idea. Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis and wishes to die, believes politicians are out of touch. 'Politicians haven't kept up,' she says. 'Lawyers and judges have been the only people who have been prepared to defend my rights.'
Is it just the terminally ill who use Dignitas?
Not at all. Many who choose to die do so simply because their quality of life isn't as they would wish it to be. But some think it's dangerous making it a 'lifestyle' choice.
What's the answer?
Not easy to say. There are strong feelings on both sides. But most people probably want a law that both allows people to die with dignity yet also has strong safeguards to ensure the vulnerable are protected.

Word Watch

Alzheimer's
A progressive brain disease bringing loss of memory and speech. In advanced state, those who suffer from it cease to be able to recognise family and friends.
Assisted suicide
When someone is provided with help to commit suicide. With Dignitas, they provide the poison; but the individual drinks it, ensuring it is not classed as murder.
Dignitas
A clinic in Switzerland which is able, within the law, to help people commit suicide.
Motor neurone disease
A progressive disease, causing weakness and muscle wastage. This leads to loss of mobility in the limbs, and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing.
Stoically
To take something with apparent indifference, without expressing emotion; unaffected by pleasure or pain. The word comes from Stoicism, a Greek philosophical movement that began in 3rd Century BC.
Hospice
A place of hospitality and care where the terminally ill can go to die. They receive treatment that eases the pain, but which doesn't hasten death.

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