This documentary showed Sir Terry Pratchett meeting Peter, a sufferer from motor neurone disease (MND). Sir Terry went on to accompany Peter and his wife to the “Dignitas” clinic in Switzerland, where Peter drank poison and died, - the death being actually filmed and shown on screen. Sir Terry declared: “I want to stay around to see assisted dying carried out in the UK”.
Was it too much to expect that some sort of arguments might have been advanced, to justify the film’s presentation of assisted suicide as a beneficial and compassionate act? There were none such, though two basic assumptions were evident, both of them briefly summarised in a comment made by Andrew, a sufferer from multiple sclerosis and another of Dignitas’s clients. Andrew was in his early forties and had already made two unsuccessful (and unassisted) suicide attempts. He stated: “I should like to have a death which is comfortable, painless, - and why shouldn’t I?”
“Comfortable and painless” – this rests on the assumption, basically hedonistic, that pain and distress are to be avoided without question, and enjoyment and comfort sought. Sir Terry expressed the same idea when he said “I shall enjoy life so long as I can squeeze all the juice out of it” (Sir Terry is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s). From film taken in Peter’s house it was evident that Peter and his wife have had a good life in worldly terms, having achieved money, success and an apparently happy marriage; in Sir Terry’s words, “They’ve got it all” (as indeed has Sir Terry himself, a very successful and well-known author). Peter’s anticipated drop into helplessness and dependence from such a high starting point seemed to be regarded as particularly intolerable. A brief contact with a terminally-ill taxi driver in a hospice (“I’m lucky, I had the hospice to come to”) tends to confirm that a humbler background can lead to a better acceptance of increasing dependence.
“And why shouldn’t I?” – this throwaway comment was echoed later by Ludwig Minelli, director of the “Dignitas” clinic where would-be suicides are helped to kill themselves. He referred to the “right to self-determination” as a “human right”. Being unsure whether this was just a personal choice of words by Mr. Minelli, or whether “self-determination” in the UN Charter of Human Rights could include the right to choose the time and manner of one’s own death, I spent some time searching references on the internet. Self-determination certainly features in the UNCHR. It is the right of “a people” (not “a person”) to have a say in how it is governed, and it was originally conceived as the right of colonised countries to become independent and self-governing. This has absolutely nothing to do with an individual’s right to direct his/her own life and death.
A plaintive remark from Andrew’s mother, if it had been recognised and taken up by the film-makers, might have been seen to open a door on a very different viewpoint, - the viewpoint of those close to the would-be suicides and necessarily affected by their choice. “I wanted to keep him”, she said, “but it’s selfish”. Really? On whose part is the selfishness?
Christians take a dramatically different view of human suffering, making sense of it with reference to Christ’s passion and to the possibility of uniting one’s own suffering to Christ’s. Members of some other faiths also reject the hedonistic viewpoint which attempts to justify assisted suicide, though not for the same reason as Christians. Secularists, having a narrow view of human life as something which exists only to have “juice squeezed out of it”, necessarily will not accept any wider view, and it is difficult to see how any arguments could change the way they see things. Perhaps the best argument is the silent argument from witness, as when Blessed Pope John-Paul II “showed the world how to die”.
Sir Terry commented that Peter was “the bravest man I’ve ever met”. While this comment may or may not be true, it does suggest that Sir Terry’s circle of acquaintances has been very limited, evidently not including any firefighters, bomb disposal experts or anyone else who risks death while wanting to live.
Television is a very visual medium, and human beings are very visual creatures, with huge amounts of our brain dedicated to analysing and interpreting visual input. Towards the end of the programme, watching lengthy close-up shots of the participants’ facial expressions in which a variety of emotions were displayed, - distress, awe, compassion – I suddenly realised that we, the viewers, were being “groomed”, as a paedophile’s intended victim is groomed, the paedophile gradually and subtly undermining his victim’s view of the situation.
Reasoned argument did get a bit of an airing on the “Newsnight” programme which followed the film. Participants included Debby Purdey, a sufferer from multiple sclerosis who has challenged existing UK law in an attempt to ensure that her husband will not be prosecuted if at some time in the future he accompanies her to “Dignitas”. Dr. Erika Pressey, already encountered in the film as she is the doctor who officiates at “Dignitas”, was also present, as was Liz Carr, an actress and disability rights activist who is herself disabled and dependent on a wheelchair for mobility.
Early in the programme, the (Anglican) Bishop of Exeter was able to give his view that the film had been very one-sided, with virtually no reference to what is available to terminally ill people through hospice provision. By mentioning also the lack of reference to the weak and vulnerable, he brought in the whole question of the effect which legalising assisted suicide may have on seriously ill but non-suicidal individuals in society, and on society as a whole. Towards the end of the programme he again tried to put in a few words about the hospice movement, saying that he would have liked to “track the Cabbie” (the taxi-driver in the hospice, encountered only very briefly in the film) and “work for a good death for us all”, - at this point he was literally shouted down by several opposing voices, and was no longer able to make himself heard.
Terms such as “good death”, “horrible death” and “dignity” were tossed into the discussion without being examined or defined. The impression was thereby given that there is universal agreement on what these terms mean, which of course there is not.
Liz Carr echoed the bishop’s concern for the vulnerable, declaring that she worries about coercion, for example in old people’s homes. She pointed out that there must inevitably be an economic aspect to the question of long-term care for the elderly and disabled. Neither of these points had been so much as hinted at in the film – unless I missed them. Dr. Pressey countered the bishop’s concerns by claiming that Switzerland has “exact regulations” protecting the vulnerable from being persuaded or coerced into asking for an assisted death; indeed, she had with her a copy of the Swiss guidelines, but details were not provided to viewers. Dr. Pressey described herself as “a religious person”, and said that an English RC priest had come to the Dignitas clinic twice, the first time “not going through with it” but the second time accepting help to kill himself. This is hard to believe and it would be interesting to know whether this was a priest in good standing or one who had been laicised.
The BBC itself commissioned a report which came out in 2007, on “Safeguarding impartiality in the twenty-first century”. The conclusions drawn by that report include the following:
“Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC”
“Impartiality is an essential part of the BBC’s contract with its audience”
“Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission”
“Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for ‘the common good’ or become involved in controversies”.
“Choosing to die” appears to fly in the face of all these conclusions; the “Newsnight” programme less so, though some bias is still evident. Perhaps the BBC will redress the balance by producing a programme on palliative end-of-life care provided both in and outside hospices. One lives in hope.
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The TV and the Culture of Death
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