Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wot I'm watching: Dying with dignity - or Dignitas

Last night's BBCtv documentary Choosing to Die has re-opened the debate about "assisted suicide". It should have made harrowing viewing (and to an extent it did) as we and Terry Pratchett followed a distinctly "posh" couple to the Dignitas clinic on an industrial estate outside Zurich and watched as the husband, Peter, in his 70s and suffering from motor neurone disease, drank a small glass of poison and died, not quite silently, on-camera.

Peter was an ex-colonial gent with a military air and an eerie fatalism. His wife was a very "county" lady who reminded me more than a little of the Duchess of Devonshire; she too was calm and restrained, but you knew that her heart was breaking. Their utterly British stiff-upper-lipness made the one-way trip to Switzerland seem an entirely practical, even sensible, short-cut.

A Church-of-England bishop was fulminating on breakfast television today about the programme's propagandising for assisted suicide, but as well as following Peter's last days and those of Andrew, a 42-year-old with MS who opted for the Swiss exit, Terry Pratchett also met with a blunt-speaking London cabbie with MND, who investigated Dignitas and instead chose to end his days in a hospice for the terminally ill.

In my early 30s I had an ugly three weeks of visiting my sister-in-law's sister, Glenys, a mother in her early 20s, in Hammersmith Hospital where she was dying from multiple cancers. This was in the 1960s; pain control wasn't as good as it is now. On my last visit Glenys, despite the morphine, was writhing and crying with pain. She begged me to kill her and - God forgive me - I wished that I could. She died, mercy at last, less than a day later.

In the 1980s I watched three close friends die in the first wave of AIDS. Each died a more grisly death than his predecessor. Nick, the third of these, swore he would end his life before it turned too ghastly, but he hung on, hoping for a miracle, until he lacked the strength, mental and physical, to shorten his suffering.

Nick would not have been allowed to take the Dignitas route. Stringent rules mean that sufferers must self-administer the lethal drug. Sir Terry Pratchett, like Peter and Andrew, will have to make his return visit to Zurich before his Alzheimer's removes him from a 'sound state of mind'. The Dignitas doctor who interviews patients to assess their "eligibility" said she would not be happy to go one step further and administer the drug herself. This process - euthanasia - is allowed in Holland and Belgium and in two enlightened West Coast states in the US. There must be - there are, as at Dignitas - stringent safeguards to prevent unscrupulous people from ruthlessly disposing of inconvenient (and/or very wealthy) relatives, but Sir Terry is not the only person who would like to see, at least, assisted suicide legalised in Britain.

We have, today, so many freedoms about how we may live our lives; why can we not add to these the freedom to end our lives at a time of our own choosing if Fate brings us a vile fatal illness? Most of us choose to request the vet to ease the suffering of our ailing pets, so why not have that option for ourselves? To go gently into that good night.

Life, they tell us, is a bitch. Death can be a bit of a bugger too.

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