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Thoughts on Assisted Dying

July 20, 2011

Last week I eventually got round to watching the very emotional programme by Sir Terry Pratchett, Choosing to Die ( Other comment about it can be read here ( and here (

The issue of Assisted Dying has been bubbling about in the UKfor a number of years, four years ago the big name in the news was Debbie Purdy (

The law in theUKhas not changed over that time, its still illegal to assist someone in their wish to die and I suspect its not going to change any time soon. However, its an issue that I think needs to be addressed honestly and passionately and doing nothing about it will soon become untenable.

My Position on the Matter

Currently, I am undecided.

I have sympathy with the argument that someone who is terminally ill would rather end their life while they are able to make the decision to save themselves the ignominy of a long and drawn out death that is burdensome to their loved ones and utterly undignified in its conclusion.

However, I also share the concerns of those who say that this could easily turn into unspoken pressure that someone who is terminally ill should make that decision for the betterment of those around.

Watching the film last night, I felt the process was very legalistic and cold and almost factory like. I acknowledge that those at Dignitas made a very real effort to make the process comfortable and loving, but it still came across to me as impassioned in places. While that can be improved with better surroundings, I don’t think that could ever be fully neutralised.

When you throw in the statistic that over 20% of those who end their life at Dignitas are not terminally ill ( I get very concerned. The phrase ‘tired of life’ was used in the programme. Is it right that people, who are essentially depressed, should be able to trot of and end their lives because they are having an exceptionally bad day? Can someone in that situation really be mentally capable of making such a decisive decision in a rational manner?

So I remain undecided, if theUKproposed a law making assisted suicide legal but had stronger guidelines than those inSwitzerland, then I’d be sympathetic towards it and might even agree with it, depending on the exact limits allowed. However, I still have the deeply uncomfortable feeling that such a thing would be the top of a slippery slope and a momentum would be started that would be impossible to stop and it wouldn’t be very long before all the uncomfortable issues are rearing their heads and causing much greater concern than if we’d never done it in the first place.

My Experiences with Death

I suspect most people coming to this debate form their opinions from their own experiences and so I’ll briefly detail some of mine for context.

I lost all of my grandparents a decade ago in an 18 month period that was, quite frankly, utterly shit. My mother’s parents died suddenly, at home, from heart attacks 6 months apart. The deaths were unexpected, and to be honest, the surprise nature made the whole thing easier to deal with. There was no build up and no anticipation, just a phone call giving the news and a week to deal with the run up to the funeral.

For me, this is how it should be, at home, mostly healthy and suddenly go.

My father’s parents were a very different story.

My grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s and then Alzheimer’s later in life. He spent his last days in a home, not always knowing what was going on. One Christmas when my wife and I went to collect him so that he could spend the day with family, I looked around at all the other elderly people there and wondered why they were not being taken to see their families too. One woman in particular started approaching my wife and I, arms outstretched, begging us to take her away from that place. We were both in tears as I drove out of the car park, it was a deeply upsetting moment that lacked all love and dignity. When I got the news that my grandfather had eventually died, it wads a relief, not because I was glad he was gone, quite the opposite, I loved my grandfather dearly. It was a relief because he wasn’t himself, his mind was clearly not all there and combined with seeing him in such frail health it visiting him never felt like it was him I was actually visiting, rather it was just a body that bore a resemblance to his former more healthy frame. To my mind, he’d gone some months before, the last few months were stressful, emotional (not in a good way) and most critically lacked pretty much any form of dignity.

My grandmother developed motor neurone disease and ended her days in a home as her body slowly failed her. Her mind continued to be sharp and active during that whole time. I gained a new respect for her in those last months; all my life I had known her as the whinging and complaining grandmother who could always find something negative to say. Yet, with this diagnosis emerged a new person, one who would bravely face disease and death with humour and dignity. She never complained once about her plight and I remember her telling me what would go next and how it would affect her, there was no remorse, no regret, just fact. My grandmother inspired me in the way she handled that and it’s a memory of her I treasure highly.

It wasn’t long after these deaths that the first stories about assisted dying and those campaigning for it to be legal in theUKhit the news. At first I was insulted that people should choose this and should even dare tell me that I was wrong to oppose the idea. The memories of my grandparent’s deaths were still very fresh and there is no chance that I would have ever agreed to any of them choosing their own death. So these news reports and things that the pro group were saying hit a very raw nerve for me.

Suicide is Essentially Selfish

My stance on suicide is that it’s a selfish act which has devastating consequences on those left behind while the perpetrator escapes any recourse. Assisted Dying, while not quite the same thing, does touch on that area and is something that needs addressing.

During the Terry Pratchett programme, a relative of one of the people involved said that she would be selfish if she objected to his wishes to die and end his suffering in this way. I counter that it was he who was being selfish by forcing her to say goodbye to him when she clearly wasn’t ready to do so. The attitude that says “its your life and therefore your choice” kept coming through on the programme, and its this aspect that I object to most strongly. Its not just your life that is affected, its also the lives of those around you. Its utterly selfish to deny them a say in what happens next. The phrase Assisted Dying implies that its not a solo act, there is help given and that help most certainly should include the blessing of those who love you and if they object then its absolutely not your right to force your will upon them.

If theUKis to consider making Assisted Dying legal, then this aspect really does need to be addressed properly.

Grave Concerns

I suspect that there will be very strong objections to a change inUKlaw to make Assisted Dying legal. Mnay of these objections will centre on the deep concerns that elderly and vulnerable people will end up being persuaded to end their own lives by others with dubious motives.

I do share those concerns but ultimately I don’t think that they are insurmountable. It all depends on how any proposed law would be worded and the practicalities of the implementation.

For me, a bigger concern is those who go through a difficult patch in their life and choose to end it rather than work it though.


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