Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Terry Pratchett makes the case for assisted dying

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Terry Pratchett (BBC/KEO films)
Last night saw the broadcast of Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, in which the Discworld author accompanies a motor neurone disease sufferer, Peter Smedley, on his trip to die at Dignitas in Switzerland. The documentary, which has caused controversy on account of its depiction of Smedley's final moments, has moved assisted dying to the centre of the national debate, and can be viewed online via the BBC's iPlayer service.

To coincide with the documentary, for our new issue we asked Pratchett to tell us why he supports a change in the law on assisted dying. Here's what he wrote for us:
"A short time ago I had to insist to a not very youthful journalist that during my early lifetime anyone who attempted to commit suicide and failed would face a criminal charge and be locked up, presumably to show them life was wonderful and thoroughly worth living. 

It would be nice to think that in the not too distant future someone will be incredulous when told that a British citizen stricken with a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, and yet nevertheless still quite compos mentis, would have to go all the way to another country to die. They would ask for an explanation, and I’d be damned if I could think of one. Three decent, sedate and civilised European countries already allow physician-assisted suicide and yet, despite the fact that every indication is that British people understand and are in favour of assisted dying, if properly conducted, the government consistently turns its back on it.  A year ago I was told by a cabinet minister that it would never happen in Britain and I suggested that this was a strange thing to say in a democracy and got a black look for my pains. 

Initially, I thought the opposition was largely due to a certain amount of curdled Christianity. Despite the fact that there is no scriptural objection, Christian opposition came about in the 14th century when, because of religious wars and the Black Death, people were committing suicide on the basis that, well, as this world was now so dreadfully unpleasant, maybe it would be a good idea to make an attempt on heaven. Authority objected otherwise. Who would milk the cows? Who would fight the wars? People couldn’t be allowed to slope off like that. They had to stay and face their just punishment for being born. 

Even now I detect some echoes of that frame of mind; that affliction is somehow a penance for an unknown transgression. To hell with that! Every time the question of assisted dying is broached in this country there is a choreographed outcry, suggested overtones of Nazism and, of course, the murder of grandmothers for their money. And the perpetrators get away with it because the British have a certain tradition of bullying from the top down. “The common people are stupid and we who know better must make the decisions for them.”

Well, the common people are not stupid. They might watch god-awfully stupid reality TV and make a lot of noise in football grounds and they don’t understand, perhaps, the politics of Trident, but they are very clever about the politics of blood and bone and pain and suffering. They understand about compassion and, like my father, they are nothing if not practical about these things. He was incurably ill and saw no reason, given the absence of the hope of any cure, why he shouldn’t forgo any more suffering and head straight for the door. 

And people also understand that, especially if you don’t have much money, long-term care in the UK can be somewhat problematical at best. And yet the government sits there like an ancient Pope, hoping that it will all go away."
Terry Pratchett's piece on assisted dying is in the July issue of New Humanist, which we're just putting the finishing touches to today. On the shelves next Thursday, it also features Marcus Brigstocke, John Gribbin, AL Kennedy and John Berger – details on how to subscribe here.
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