Pratchett ready to write his last lines

A few editions ago, I wrote a review for the Book Section on Terry Prachett’s latest instalment to the Discworld books, mentioning that the author has a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Dimbleby lecture, on BBC1 on the first of this month, featured Mr. Pratchett as the key speaker, although the lecture was delivered by Tony Robinson, as the form of Alzheimer’s affecting Pratchett leaves him almost unable to read – something that must be crushing for such a prolific author – but the lecture is Pratchett’s story, Pratchett’s fight. The subject was assisted death.

{{ quote “I wish to continue for as long as I am still myself, knowing who I am and recognising my nearest and dearest” }}

We live in a country where, as of 2007, more people have pensions than are legally required to go to school. The average age of the population has risen from 37 in 1998 to 39 in 2008. As a country, we’re getting older. To most students, old age and pensions seem distant, let alone death. But for many, death seems to be creeping closer. This is sombre enough, but there are thousands of people who can put more accurate limits on their lives, and know some of what will happen in the interim. These people have been diagnosed with a form of terminal disease.

There have been media profiles over the previous years of individuals who’ve fought for their right to die. More than 100 British people have journeyed to Dignitas in Switzerland. Some have help from relatives (who can then face murder charges), or help each other, as with Mr. and Mrs. Milner, who wrote to the BBC before dying, maintaining they’d “chosen to peacefully end our lives … [to avoid] a living death”. The couple, both in their 80s, had talked their children through their decision, thus avoiding the shock or regret that occurs after so many deaths.

The taboo of suicide may stem from religious beliefs that life is sacred, not ours to tamper with. But even as a Christian, I believe that when your life has already been, in a way, taken from you, different circumstances apply. It has been suggested that we sometimes mistake life for a “blip on an oscilloscope”, when really it’s so much more. It is quality of life that is important. That’s not to say there should be a level of life below which it’s deemed not worth living. But to be forced into this situation without the prospect or allowance of escape does not, to me, seem human. This situation is about informed choice.

A friend saw this issue as insulting to those who would give anything for one extra minute. Although I see his point, I don’t think it’s necessarily viable. Go back to Mr. Pratchett, a man whose brilliant writing career has brought happiness to thousands. His disease will render him confused, probably bitter and angry, and incapable of pursuing his life’s work. Pratchett’s decided that he’ll “not let the disease take me, but I will take it. I will live my life, as ever, to the full, and die before the disease has mounted its last attack … I enjoy my life. I wish to continue for as long as I am still myself, knowing who I am and recognising my nearest and dearest”. Given a choice, I’m sure he’d prefer to continue life into old age, dying peacefully when the time came. But knowing the ‘endgame’ of Alzheimer’s, the option of dying peacefully and naturally is unlikely to be available. He’ll lose the capability to look after himself; already he can no longer tie his own tie. This may seem a specific example, but it’s a key one – it’s been forecast that by 2050, Alzheimer’s disease will affect one in 85 people globally. At present, there seems to be a single available to people – to be cared for by others. Although there should always be care available, this will be more difficult to provide; we need to look at alternatives, of which assisted death is one.

It is important to temper this argument. There are people who live with terminal diseases, and would not want to end their lives. Many people are afraid that allowing the option of assisted death will lead, explicitly or not, to pressure being put upon members of society who need extra help. However, studies throughout countries where assisted death is legal haven’t shown this at all; in most cases of assisted death there’s evidence of friends and family asking the person concerned to delay as long as they are willing to.

This article is not long enough to even touch upon many of the issues surrounding this idea. Opening the door to assisted death means a myriad of possibilities have to be assessed and considered. Do people who’ve just been diagnosed with a degenerative disease and do not wish even to start along the road have the right to die? If a fully paralysed person has the right, how about somebody who is partially paralysed? What about people with serious depression? I don’t know where the limits should be, and don’t have answers to the above questions. But it’s clear to me that medically assisted death should be available to those suffering from a life threatening and incurable disease. Not having this option cheapens the idea of life.


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