The recent case of Kay Gilderdale, the mother who helped her daughter die after she had suffered for 17 years with Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME), has reignited a complex ethical debate which has been bubbling below the surface for some years.
Last night the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture saw fantasy author and Alzheimers suferrer Terry Pratchett support the case for assisted death in a very emotionally charged speech entitled ‘Shaking hands with death’.
Due to Terry Pratchett’s condition, his speech was read by Tony Robinson, better known as Baldric from the historical sitcom Blackadder. It was a speech which reached out of the screen and pulled me in. It was captivating, it was balanced, it was convincing and it was inspirational.
The speech detailed how Pratchett’s particularly rare form of Alzhimer’s disease has taken hold since he was diagnosed in 2007, aged 59. The words coveyed real meaning and struck a nerve with me as i’m sure they did with many of the 2.1 million others who tuned in to watch it.
Terry Pratchett’s desire was to put forward a case for a Euthanasia tribunal, which would give people with severe or terminal illnesses the right to choose exactly when they die. He did this by referring to his own disease and making public the circumstances in which he himself wishes to die.
His desire to die at his own request ‘before the disease took him over’ was detailed. It was poignantly stated that Terry Pratchett wishes to die sitting in his own armchair, or in his own garden with a glass of brandy, whilst listening to English composer Thomas Tallis on his iPod.
‘Complex ethical debate’
This simple wish conjoured up strong images in my mind and left me convinced that assisted death was not only wholly acceptable, but left me questioning why this issue has not been addressed before now.
Naturally I began thinking about my own death and the particular artist I would want to listen to on my iPod should that time come. I came to no solid conclusions before also beginning to think about the situations in which my relatives may meet their end and what circumstances they might wish for.
I must stress I do not wish to oversimplify this very complex ethical debate and there are still many questions which must be considered. For example, the distinction between severely ill and terminally ill is one which deserves particular attention if a change in the law is to be discussed.
With that said, on a basic level, I don’t see any reason why people who have been in considerable pain for a number of years, sometimes the majority of their lives, cannot have the right to decide when they want to die. Perhaps more important is the conscious decision of the circumstances under which they wish to die.
Terry Pratchett’s detailed description of how he envisages his own death seems, on a personal level, to make perfect sense. In essence that personal level is what this debate boils down to. It is about giving people the right to personalize their own death. It’s about giving people, who are in constant pain, the right to avoid spending their last remaining days in an alien and uncomfortable environment such as a hospital ward. An environment where they are surrounded by men and women in white coats who insist on keeping them alive and in the process prolong their pain.
I don’t proclaim to know how it feels to have a terminal illness. However, I do know that if I did, I would at least like to have the option of choosing to apply for assisted death if I so desired.
The possibility of this debate being addressed by Parliament before this year’s General Election is very unlikely due to it being of an ethical nature and not a party political one. However, do not be surprised if it crops up in the new term of Parliament this summer.
‘The Richard Dimbleby Lecture’ can be seen on BBC iPlayer until 8th February 2010