Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Choosing to Die

Sir Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors - I've loved his writing ever since I came across the blurb on the back of his 4th Discworld novel 'Mort' which said "Death comes to us all; when he came to Mort, he offered him a job." It's ironic really that that should be my first memory of Terry, in the light of last night's documentary that he presented on the subject of assisted dying.

Sir Terry was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few years ago, and is naturally concerned that his faculties and abilities will diminish as the illness proceeds. In the course of the programme he followed two others with similar debilitating ailments - Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease - as they contemplated ending their lives. Assisted death is illegal in Britain, but on the continent it is possible to be helped to take ones own life.

The programme explored some of the issues around this subject from the perspective of Peter, a 71 year-old, and Andrew (42), both of whom had opted to use the services of 'Dignitas', a Swiss-based non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people who wish to to take their own lives, and also from the perspective of Dignitas' Secretary General Ludwig Minelli. It did so in a dignified and non-sensationalist way, though not without touches of Pratchett's trademark tongue-in-cheek humour in places. As Terry and his assistant Rob were driving to meet Peter & his wife Christine at the beginning of the programme, the car's SatNav could be heard in the background stating "You have reached your destination"; and when talking to Minelli Terry referred to Dignitas as 'The Hades business'.

I must confess that I did not warm to Herr Minelli: I found him a little 'creepy'; there was something about his demeanour that left me feeling a little cold, and his reference to the 50 types of tea that he had in his house, which makes him some kind on tea-ologian - "and that's the only 'tea-ology' which I accept" - just jarred a little. For such an issue which raises a number of theological and ethical questions, that was really the only nod to God in the whole programme (other than Pratchett acknowledging that there are those who object to assisted dying on religious, moral and practical grounds) - though I must accept that Pratchett comes at the subject from a non-religious perspective.

Perhaps the biggest question from last night's documentary was one that was almost a throw-away line: "Who owns your life?" Minelli's central justification for providing this service (for a mere £10,000) is based on the right of each human being to self-determination, which he extends to the right to determine the time and nature of the end of their life, and this implies that the answer to Pratchett's question is 'you own your life, and you have the right to decide when it comes to an end.' For those of us who come from a position of faith that is not as easy a question to answer, for for some of us the 'deeds' to our lives have been handed over (handed back?) to another - to God. That then leaves us with the question of whether, if we were in the grip of the debilitating diseases that were highlighted in the programme, we would consider it right for God to want us to suffer until God saw fit to bring that suffering and our life to an end. How does 'I am no longer my own, but yours' fit into this context? Yes, life is special; life is sacred, but when does life cease to be life and become mere existence? In prolonging life are we, at times, simply prolonging death?

Andrew and Peter, who took part in the programme, had come to the conclusion that, for their own sakes and for the sakes of those closest to them, they could continue their lives no longer. I have to say that I found the final 10 minutes of the programme profoundly moving, as we accompanied Peter through his final moments - and I am not easily moved by much these days. At the end of the day I cannot in my heart of hearts say that what he and Andrew did in taking their lives was wrong. Would I take the same route if I were in their position? I just don't know.