Terry Pratchett's case for assisted suicide is strong

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Terry Pratchett's case for assisted suicide is strong

Post by Guest on Fri Jun 10, 2011 8:11 am

On a hill across a valley from where I live in southern Northamptonshire stands the village of Grafton Regis with its fine old church of St Mary the Virgin. It was there that I went this week to celebrate the consecration of a plaque in memory of Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who captained HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous five-year voyage round the world in the 1830s and was an eminent meteorologist who pioneered what he called – and what everybody still calls – the "weather forecast". He became a hero among sailors for setting up a system of gale warnings that was believed to have saved many lives at sea.

The walls in the church at Grafton Regis are lined with memorials to the FitzRoys, the family of the dukes of Grafton, descendants of King Charles II, who until the 1920s owned some 15,000 acres in these parts. But until now, nearly 150 years after Robert FitzRoy's death, there had been no memorial there to the family's most celebrated member. The reason, I was told by the clergyman conducting the service, was that FitzRoy had killed himself.

But times have changed. Not only has suicide been legal since the Suicide Act was passed in 1961, but the Church of England now looks upon this sin with compassion and does not deny its perpetrators the dignity of a proper funeral. So Robert FitzRoy, who in 1865 cut his throat with a razor at his home in Upper Norwood, London, after spending all his money on meteorological projects, is now commemorated in a place of honour among all the other FitzRoys in the church at Grafton Regis.

An irony about FitzRoy's rejection by the Church is that he was a good Christian. He fell out with Charles Darwin over the theory of evolution. At a debate about The Origin of Species in Oxford in 1860, FitzRoy stood in the centre of the audience and "lifting an immense Bible first with both and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man". He made it up with Darwin, but their relationship was never quite the same again.

Despite the tolerance of suicide that there is now, it is still illegal for anyone to help another to die; the Suicide Act states firmly that "a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years". And this is the law against which there is a growing campaign.

Next Monday, on BBC2, the writer Sir Terry Pratchett, 62, who is suffering from a rare form of Alzheimer's disease, and is a supporter of the right to assisted suicide, will present a documentary called Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, which follows the case of Peter Smedley, a man in his early 70s with motor neurone disease, a condition that will eventually make him unable to swallow or breathe. Faced with this prospect, Peter decides to die at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, and Pratchett accompanies him, where the whole grim business will be shown.

Dignitas is a non-profit organisation with the charitable purpose of helping the terminally ill bring an end to their sufferings, but there is something chilling about it all the same. Amid much controversy, another Dignitas death, also that of a motor neurone sufferer, an American computer scientist called Craig Ewert, was filmed on Sky in 2008. I watched it with great distaste as Ewert's last moments were spent in what looked like a cheap motel room as Dignitas staff, prudently insuring themselves against subsequent charges that they had encouraged him in his purpose, made him turn off his own life support system and drink the poison they had given him unaided while they repeatedly warned him that, if he did these things, he was going to die.

Pratchett has said that his idea of a happy suicide would be sitting on a chair on the lawn at his home in Wiltshire, with Thomas Tallis on his iPod, a brandy in one hand and a glass of life-ending chemicals in the other. That would clearly be a much more pleasant way of dying than doing so at Dignitas, but it would also be a straightforward, unassisted and perfectly legal suicide. Pratchett's concern is for people who, for whatever reason, are unable to kill themselves without help.

He makes the point here that if people knew that they would always be able to die when they wanted to, and were not rushed into killing themselves by fears that if they did not do it now, they might soon not be able to do it without illegal help, they would choose to stay alive for longer. He told the Radio Times: "If someone knows they can die when they want to, they can treasure every day. They can think, 'The grandchildren are coming over tomorrow' or 'It's nearly Christmas, so I'll leave it till the new year . . . it's a bit painful, but we can hang in there.'"

So there does seem to be a strong case for assisted suicide under certain, clearly specified circumstances. But the problem is that assisted suicide is too close to murder for the law to be able to distinguish easily between them. As Gordon Brown said in a euthanasia debate in the House of Commons three years ago: "I believe that it's necessary to ensure that there is never a case in the country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it's the expected thing to do." That is the enormous problem, and it seems, alas, to be almost impossible to resolve.



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