Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Sir Terry Pratchett: Hats Off

Last night BBC screened a documentary on assisted suicide, presented by Sir Terry Pratchett. The novelist was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago. At the programme's opening he said: "I know a time will come when words will fail me, when I can't write my books. I'm not sure I will want to go on living. Is it possible for someone like me and you to arrange for themselves a death that they want?"

Sir Terry's documentary was deeply moving, an examination of the extent to which we should all be allowed to determine the timing and method of our death. His journey led to the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas, to explore the prospect of assisted suicide for himself and to meet two British men who would end their lives there. With great sensitivity Pratchett confronted the options for seriously ill people, and at times you saw him struggle.

Peter Smedley was a wealthy 71-year-old with motor neurone disease, who felt his time had come. Filmed at the clinic as he took the poison which killed him, Mr Smedley's surreal composure, his gasps for water, the final sagging slump between his wife and a Dignitas 'escort' filled me with revulsion and fear.

The Dignitas site is set on a Zurich industrial estate amid warehouses and factories. Inside all is chilling white, without pretence; a vile, desperate place to end your life. But was Mr Smedley's demise any more dreadful than relentless long-term illness and a slow death by suffocation? How strong do we have to be to live for the moment, day after day? And when it comes to the crunch, what will we each want?

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