This posting is about terminal illness and assisted suicide and the recent lecture by Terry Pratchett on the same.
Terry Pratchett (assisted by Tony Robinson) recently gave a lecture entitled Shaking Hands with Death. It’s on BBC iPlayer (possibly only viewable in the UK), on Youtube, and you can read the Guardian‘s edited transcript. It is funny and moving. I recommend it.
Pratchett has posterior cortial atrophy, a variant of Alzheimer’s disease which currently effects his vision and motor skills while leaving his memory intact. Eventually, though, Alzheimer’s will deal with him as it does with everyone else who has it.
The burden of the lecture is that Pratchett wants to be able to chose the time and manner of his death, and wants anyone who helps him to do so to avoid prosecution. He says:
I would live my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the “Brompton cocktail” some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.
Currently, the helpful medic (or any other helper) would probably be breaking the law. What Pratchett suggests is that there should be a tribunal which would pre-emptively exonerate such helpers:
The members of the tribunal would be acting for the good of society as well as that of the applicant – horrible word – to ensure they are of sound and informed mind, firm in their purpose, suffering from a life-threatening and incurable disease and not under the influence of a third party.
The sound mind and firm purpose are important to Pratchett, who prefers the term “assisted death” to “assisted suicide”. He tells his listeners how he wrote about suicides as a young reporter. The phrase the coroner always used was that a person had “taken his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed”. What he wants is for a quick death to be available to those whose balance is level.
It’s hard to see how one could deny someone like Pratchett the opportunity to die in the comfort of their home. There would have to be precautions, limits which would put some helpers we might think were morally justified on the wrong side of any new law. I think limiting euthanasia to people with a terminal illness who are able to express their desire for it is one of those precautions: there would still be hard, tragic cases where we’d might wish the law were laxer, but the government must also protect the vulnerable from pressure to die.
Pratchett has his opposition: Archbishop John Sentamu says we must not listen to opinion polls or dying celebrities (though, we must, of course, listen to bishops). We should, says Sentamu, listen to disabled people. clairlewis, a disability rights activist, gives her opinion over at Heresiarch’s blog. Unfortunately, her arguments seem completely unrelated to Pratchett’s request.
The comment from someone called “KeepOut OfMyLife” puts it best, I think. Being poor and disabled is hard, and someone who is struggling to cope may consider suicide. Their desire to die could be alleviated if their standard of care were better. It would be negligent to hand these people the means to die without improving their care, just as it would be negligent to hand a gun to someone who was deeply depressed. But this isn’t the case that Pratchett wants the government to deal with. In fact, a government could (though, given the budget deficit, will not) improve care for people with disabilities and allow people with terminal illness to get help in dying when they chose.
clairlewis‘s argument appears to be that terminally ill people should not have what they want until disabled people get what they need. While I can understand her frustration that disabled people are ignored while Pratchett is able to use his clout to get a hearing, preventing Pratchett and others like him from having the death they want will not help anyone else.