“Coronation Street” and “Ich Klage an”
Over the last few years, a number of programmes have been aired both by the BBC and ITV, supportive of euthanasia implicitly or explicitly. The most recent example that I am aware of is an episode of “Coronation Street” in which a much-loved character suffering from a terminal illness commits suicide, dying in ‘her husband’s’1 arms. At least one documentary programme about “Dignitas” (the assisted-suicide facility in Switzerland) has been shown by the BBC, with one death actually screened. The balance of what is shown in, and just as importantly what is omitted from, such programmes clearly influences viewers’ feelings on the topic. This would seem to be the intention of the people involved in making and screening the programmes.
I was interested to discover (from Fr. Tim Finigan’s blog, “The Hermeneutic of Continuity”) that films promoting euthanasia with the intention of influencing people to favour it, are nothing new. Over seventy years ago, in Nazi Germany, Goebbels commissioned a film Ich Klage an (“I accuse”), based on a novel by Dr. Hellmuth Unger, in which “an attractive woman with multiple sclerosis is shown being gently killed by her loving husband” after she has asked doctors to kill her and been refused. The husband is subsequently tried for her murder, and at the trial turns on his accusers to accuse them of cruelty for their wish to prolong the lives of people suffering incurable and terminal illnesses. By 1941, the date when the film was released, the Nazi euthanasia programme known as Aktion T4 had been in progress for some time, aimed at eliminating not merely the terminally ill who expressed a wish to die, but all those “unworthy of life”, - those needing to be cared for long-term and unable to be a productive part of the workforce. Aktion T4 was kept secret; people in institutional care were killed by injection, gassing or simple starvation, and their families were told they had died of natural causes; but the suspicions of the general public had been aroused.
It may be worth noting that the phrase “Life unworthy of life” predates National Socialism by a number of years, being taken from a book first published in 1920, written by Alfred Hoch (a psychiatrist) and Karl Binding (a lawyer) in which they argue for “the destruction of life unworthy of life”. The killing of the inconvenient did not originate with the Nazis, either in principle or in practice, though it was carried out by them on a huge scale.
By way of a footnote, I came across an article about Shakespeare’s King Lear in a recent issue of the “Catholic Herald”. The article is by Laura Keynes, and points out that some of the themes in Lear are right up-to-date. Lear is the father of two daughters who would ideally like him dead and out of the way, and of a third who shows him love, care and respect despite his failing mind. Another character, the Duke of Gloucester, is the father of two sons, one of whom is quite open about wanting his father dead so that he can gain his inheritance while he is still young enough to enjoy it, while the other loves and reveres his father, and manages to foil Gloucester’s suicide attempt while pretending to go along with it (as Laura Keynes points out, in our society as it is now Gloucester would be saying “Take me to Dignitas”). In King Lear Shakespeare was probably reflecting rather than intentionally promoting the accepted Christian morality of his day. The same cannot be said of some TV programme makers, who, like Dr. Unger and his Nazi backers, are deliberately promoting as well as reflecting a utilitarian rather than a Christian morality, disguising it as compassion for the suffering.
Why is it on?
Yesterday I went to a friend’s house for coffee, stayed about an hour, then went on to a hospital clinic.
In both situations, there was a television, and it was switched on.
At my friend’s house, the television was on when I arrived, and stayed on, but with the sound turned down low, so we chatted over coffee without being disturbed by it. I think it was a programme about antiques. My friend clearly wasn’t watching it, I wasn’t watching it, my friend’s mother (for whom she cares) wasn’t watching it, - well, she couldn’t have been; she is nearly blind, and in any case was sitting sideways on to the set and not facing towards it. None of us, at any time, made any reference to the television or the programme. It might as well have been a static picture on the wall.
In the hospital waiting-room likewise there was a television, switched on.
There were about twenty of us waiting. The clinic has a first come, first served rule, and I knew there would probably be a long wait, so I had a book with me. Several other people had books or kindles; some were talking to one another. Many just sat, waiting to be called. Several times I looked all around the room, to see if anyone was showing any interest in the programme (it was the winter Olympics, so they might have been).
Nearly always, no-one was; just once I did see one woman who was clearly intent on watching the skiing.
Really, I am mystified. Why is it felt necessary to have a background murmur and flicker going on constantly, to which no-one is paying any attention, and for which someone is going to have to pay the electricity bill? In the clinic, is it a kind of acknowledgement, on the part of the hospital staff, that “We know you want some human attention and we can’t give it to you yet, so have this as the next best thing”? – But even that doesn’t explain why people have it on in their living-rooms and ignore it.
Long before television was invented, Blaise Pascal observed that
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone”
Does television perhaps function like a drug, enabling people to sit quietly in a room alone? And once hooked on the drug, they need it even when they are not alone; they need it all the time, just to live; or (the hospital staff) they assume that their clients will need it? Does it fill in the spaces that might otherwise be occupied by thoughts and feelings which people don’t want to entertain? I really should like to know. published on 21-02-2014
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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