The scene in Terry Pratchett’s “Choosing to Die” showing a man ending his own life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland was indeed upsetting. However, I feel that it was a good decision by the BBC to show it, and it has got people talking about the possibility of legalising assisted dying.
I believe this debate is extremely important for two main reasons. Firstly those who have a terminal, painful and degenerative illness from which they have no respite or escape are currently forced to endure months, if not years, of pain and suffering. These people, in addition, face the possibility of the humiliation of ending a dignified and proud life no longer able to function or care for themselves.
Whilst I believe that society has a duty to provide people with extensive, compassionate end of life care I understand why many believe that they would prefer to end their lives earlier and to die what they perceive to be a dignified death. Under the current arrangement the only option they have to do this is to travel to a foreign country. Not only does this mean dying somewhere alien and unfamiliar it also means that many are forced to end their lives earlier than they might have wished since they need to consider their ability to travel.
The second reason is that those family members who, when compelled through passion and mercy to assist in the death of a much-mourned loved one, are then constituted to have committed a criminal offence. Whilst the practice of arresting grieving relatives returning from Switzerland has now mostly ceased, the there is still a legal grey area where such people still cannot be certain that they will not be prosecuted. This predicament was highlighted in the documentary and, I believe, constitutes an offence against common decency and compassion.
The arguments against legalising assisted dying, though strong, do not, I believe, overcome the arguments in support. Some opponents claim to be worried about the possibility for abuse, of people being forced to end their lives early against their will. However, in those countries where the practice is legal this does not appear to have arisen as an issue. Rather there is the opposite problem – where many people are choosing to die against the sentiment of their loving relatives. Any legalisation of the practice in the UK would, of course, have to be accompanied by rigid safeguards to protect any who might be vulnerable which would include the consent of a number of doctors and an assurance that the patient is of sound mind.
Other arguments generally fall into the realm of the “sanctity of human life”. This overbearing influence of religious doctrine needs to be rejected on matters where it so fundamentally impacts upon the freedom of individuals. If people of a religious persuasion do not believe that a life should be ended prematurely they themselves are of course free to wait until their life ends naturally. This does not mean that they should be allowed to make this decision for others. The right to die, to self-determination, should lie solely with the individual and I applaud Terry Pratchett and all others who are fighting for this right.