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Do we really want agents of death in Britain?

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Michael Nazir-Ali

The latest BBC documentary glosses over the pain and moral difficulty of assisted suicide


The BBC is gushing about its film Choosing to Die, which is to be shown tonight. The programme, presented by Sir Terry Pratchett, is called “incredibly moving” “piece of work, in which we see a person take his own life on camera, so desperate was he to affect the debate on assisted dying”.

But, of course, it is not as idyllic as it is made out to be. We know now that the death was messy, with the dying man choking and gasping for water and the request being refused by those “helping” him to die .

Again and again, Parliament and the medical profession have declared their opposition to assisted suicide yet the issue keeps being brought back into the public arena by a small but determined group of lobbyists. It seems that the BBC has joined them, having broadcast five programmes on this subject since 2008, all portraying assisted suicide in a favourable light.

The paradox is that this campaign has emerged at precisely the time when the hospice movement has shown us how there can be significant quality of life up to the very end. Anna, a friend of ours, has just died after four years of battling cancer. Throughout, she was a picture not only of dignity but of thought for others. This was also a time for her of “putting things right” and of preparing for her passing and for what lay ahead. Her hospice helped manage her illness until her peaceful death.

As a priest, I know that clergy and other carers see numerous people through terminal illness to a dignified death. Compared with the few who go to clinics such as Dignitas, thousands use hospices. It would better if documentaries were made about their work and more resources, both public and voluntary, put into them.

“Last days are not . . . lost days”, said Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement. Instead of seeing themselves as alone and unwanted, people with terminal illness should be drawn into a circle of love and care where they will be valued and made as comfortable as possible. One of the tragic aspects of the BBC film is the rejection of such offers of help by those who have chosen to die.

Real life is quite different from Sir Terry’s science fiction. It is not necessary to provide overzealous treatment or officiously to keep a dying person alive if the treatment is burdensome and disproportionate to the relief it brings. Here, both patient and doctor may accept the inevitability of death without any desire to bring it about. And while pain management may sometimes lengthen a lifespan, it can also shorten it. If the intention is not to kill but to alleviate suffering, even when it is thought that death might result, that is not euthanasia but falls within the sphere of legitimate treatment of the patient.

Those who are arguing for assisted suicide to be legalised have some very important questions to answer. Do we really want agents of death, such as Dignitas, in Britain? If it is to be a relative or friend who administers the lethal dose, how can we establish intention? How can we, in a world of mixed motives, know that such a person was motivated wholly by compassion and not other interests?

What about the “vulnerable assister” who is told by the person wishing to die that it is part of his or her duty to carry out these wishes? How long will it be before those suffering from depression or bereavement are queueing up for the lethal potion? A fifth of those who use the Dignitas “service” do not have a terminal illness.

Sir Terry is an uncertain mentor. He says that he would like to die sitting in his garden with a glass of brandy in one hand and life-ending chemicals in the other. But that is taking your own life, which is not illegal. It is very different from assisted suicide, which involves taking the life of another. He has also said that he often changes his mind and is not sure whether he would choose to die in this way.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is a surer guide. “Thou shalt not kill” is about acknowledging the gift and dignity of human life — which, whether ours or another’s, we do not have the competence to take. Let us not throw away this loving teaching because of the misplaced soft-focus idealism of BBC film-makers.

Michael Nazir-Ali is a former Bishop of Rochester and President of Oxtrad

This article first appeared in The Times newspaper on 13/06/2011. You can view it here (£).