Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Pratchett on euthanasia

A couple of years ago, author Terry Pratchett revealed that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's, which would gradually take his brain. Last night, in the BBC's annual Richard Dimbleby lecture, he revealed that he planned to do something about it:

I remember what George said and vowed that rather than let Alzheimer's take me, I would take it. 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.

This seems to me quite a reasonable and sensible decision for someone with a serious, incurable and debilitating disease to elect for a medically assisted death by appointment.

And he's right. Our lives belong to us, not to someone's mythological Great Bearded Sky Fairy, and it is up to us how, when, and where we want to end them. Unfortunately, despite massive public support for this position (a Panorama poll found that 73% of UKanians believed that friends or relatives ought to be able to assist those with terminal illnesses to take their own lives), assisted suicide is still illegal in the UK, and whoever gave Pratchett that cocktail could face prosecution. Which brings us to the second part of Pratchett's lecture: a push for legalisation, with euthanasia tribunals to provide a safeguard and approve the fatal prescription:
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. It would need wiser heads than mine, though heaven knows they should be easy enough to find, to determine how such tribunals are constituted. But I would suggest there should be a lawyer, one with expertise in dynastic family affairs who has become good at recognising what somebody really means and indeed, if there is outside pressure. And a medical practitioner experienced in dealing with the complexities of serious long-term illnesses.

I would also suggest that all those on the tribunal are over 45, by which time they may have acquired the rare gift of wisdom, because wisdom and compassion should, in this tribunal, stand side-by-side with the law. The tribunal would also have to be a check on those seeking death for reasons that reasonable people may consider trivial or transient distress. I dare say that quite a few people have contemplated death for reasons that much later seemed to them to be quite minor. If we are to live in a world where a socially acceptable "early death" can be allowed, it must be allowed as a result of careful consideration.

This is a good idea. It's compassionate, and gives people control over their lives, while providing a safeguard against murder (though as Pratchett notes, there's been no evidence of coercion from jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal). And hopefully the UK government will finally bow to public pressure, implement a scheme like this, and allow people to end their lives with dignity rather than in pain and suffering.

And the same goes for New Zealand. Assisted suicide is still illegal here too. There have been two attempts to legalise it in the past two decades, with the last one failing by only two votes. Its time for someone to take another go at it. And this time, hopefully, we will win.