I suppose I should have jumped immediately onto this particular bandwagon, since it is obviously — or was yesterday — all the rage in the British press, and this blog is, after all, called Choice in Dying. Terry Pratchett, the well-known author, has been, for some time, an active campaigner for assisted dying. Suffering from an early onset form of Alzheimer’s disease, he wants the right, when he thinks the time is right, to end his own life with assistance, and has been campaigning for the general right to do this for some time now, certainly ever since his Richard Dimbleby Lecture in February 2010. Last year he accompanied Peter Smedley and his wife Christine to Dignitas in Zürich, where Peter Smedley’s death became a part of his BBC documentary on assisted dying entitled Choosing to Die (which is, unfortunately, not available for viewing in Canada), which raises, once again, all the standard issues and accusations about assisted dying. Aside from the abusive epithets, there seems to be a determined effort not only to misrepresent, but deliberately to misunderstand, what people who are talking about the legalisation of assisted dying have in mind, and what kind of society they want to see emerge from the present almost universal will to hide the fact that, someday, each one of us will die, and that the manner of our death should be of some concern to us.
But the most vituperative response to Terry Pratchett’s documentary on choosing to die was aroused by the fact that the documentary actually shows Peter Smedley dying. This is not the first time that someone dying at Dignitas has been shown on British TV, since John Zaritsky’s documentary, The Suicide Tourist (which was, I think, given a different name for its British viewers), showed Craig Ewart, a retired university professor with motor neuron disease (or Lou Gehrig’s, or ALS, depending on where you live), dying at a Dignitas clinic in Zürich. (As an aside, the Dignitas official who helped Ewart to die was the same man, Artur Bernhard, who assisted Elizabeth to die on 8th June 2007.)
But this simple act, of a person fading peacefully away on TV was enough to arouse a chorus of disapproval from a number of British journalists and citizens, as though dying is something that should be completely isolated from life, despite the fact that each one of those who watched Peter Smedley die, will themselves die one day, and many of them may die more peaceful deaths, because people like Smedley showed the way.
Damian Thompson, of the London Telegraph, is perhaps one of the worst members of this chorus, and his voice is very ugly indeed. As a Roman Catholic, he is determined to make what Terry Pratchett did, in making a documentary about Dignitas and the the release that Dignitas provides for so many people who are suffering unduly, into something brutal and senseless. But, much more than that. He wants to paint Pratchett as a criminal:
You have to say this for Sir Terry: Alzheimer’s has not dented his self-regard. On the contrary, he seems to think it gives him the moral authority to campaign for the legalisation of a really serious criminal act – not suicide, but killing other people, some of whom may not even be ill, just old. But it doesn’t.
Thompson’s link will take you to the story of Sir Edward Downes, the well-known British conductor, whose wife was very ill, and wished a surcease to all her suffering, and the suffering that was to come, but who was, himself, not ill, just old, blind, and apparently suffering from hearing loss. Once his wife died, he apparently felt that, dependent as he would have been, there was no point in going on with life. But it was his decision, not one made for him by others — precisely the point that Damian Thompson wants us to miss.
Still, notice how Damian expresses his disapproval. He says that what Terry Pratchett wants to do is to legalise ”a really serious criminal act – not suicide, but killing other people.” It is always thus. It if were legalised, it would not be “a really serious criminal act”. Nor, if Damian Thompson would only read, learn and inwardly digest the Director of Public Prosecution’s (Keir Starmer) guidelines, is it any longer considered a serious criminal act by the Crown Prosecution service even now. If Peter Smedley had remained in the UK, and had received help from his wife, or Terry Pratchett, or any other compassionate person, to bring his life to an end, the police, after examining the evidence, would be forced, by the guidelines for prosecution now in force, not to prosecute. Certainly, they would still be subject to investigation, to make sure that no wrong-doing occurred, but it is very unlikely that any substantive charge would be brought against the person or persons concerned.
Damian Thompson is speaking religious speak. From the Roman Catholic point of view, as outlined in the Vatican Declaration of Euthanasia, or as developed in greater detail in John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, assistance to die is considered a great crime, so great, according to the church, that there is some danger that contemporary Western society, where campaigns for the right to die are common, is becoming a death cult. Damian Thompson thinks that the death cult is already here, and is presided over by the BBC:
I would threaten to withhold my licence fee in protest, but the Beeb is utterly relentless in tracking down evaders and the last thing I want is to wake up in a Swiss clinic with a syringe staring me in the face.
The man is clearly hysterical, and has lost all sense of proportion, but it is not surprising that this kind of language has brought out, in the comments to his blog post, all the most fantastic fears that the church has managed to generate amongst the faithful about something so easily understood as compassion for the suffering of those who are in great pain, or who are diminished by degenerative diseases which will eventually not only reduce them to complete paralysis and dependence but will also force them to die miserably and in great pain.
Reading through the comments, it is easy to distinguish between the religious voices and the voices of rationality. The religious voices almost always paint a picture of chaos, where people will be killed for trivial reasons. One commenter likens it to the abortion law, which, in the opinion of the religious who supported it, thought that it would only be used by very few, and then only in extreme circumstances. Clearly, they did not know how many women were having illegal abortions, and how many suffered as a consequence. I do not have the book with me, but according to one writer, there were as many abortions — almost all of them illegal — in Canada, before 1969, when abortion was decriminalised, as there were after removing it as an offence in the criminal code. What people forget, though, is that abortion is done at the request of the women concerned. It is not something that is imposed. (Of course, since Catholicd believe that the blastocyst/embryo/foetus is already a person in full standing, they believe that abortion is imposed on these supposed persons, but this is a matter to be discussed another day.) In the same way, assisted dying will be provided for those who choose to die, and only when it is clear that the person’s decision is their own, and that it is a stable and enduring wish to bring their suffering to an end. There is simply no reason to suppose that people’s lives will be put in danger. People in wheelchairs and the old are not incompetent, and they are as capable of saying “I don’t want to die” as anyone else. Where they are genuinely incompetent, laws governing assisted dying for those who choose, will not in fact apply to them.
But the only reason for all the scare tactics, the talk about the sinister nature of Dignitas, and other rhetorical tricks used by Damian Thompson and other opponents of assisted dying, is simply to shore up the religious arguments which, as even the religious know, will be dismissed out of hand by most secular people who are concerned with this issue. It is time that the religious started to enter the discussion honestly, and, instead of trying to find more and more “secular” reasons why assisted dying should not be legalised, tell us clearly the real reasons for their opposition. Then we might find the discussion to be, not one of constant, niggling misdirection, but an open and honest discussion about the world views which inform the dispute in the first place. My guess is that, if we stack up the religious arguments against the reasonable arguments of those for whom the religious outlook is marginal or non-existent, we will find that the religious don’t have very much of real substance to stand on. Why else do they continue to use scare tactics to frighten people into compliance?