Yesterday I watched the BBC documentary, Terry Pratchett – Choosing to Die, where Sir Terry Pratchett explored the contentious issue of assisted suicide. The programme has created much controversy, in particular for filming the final moments of Motor Neurone Disease sufferer Peter Smedley, drinking his glass of poison at the Swiss clinic, Dignitas.
My own father died of MND in February this year so this was a hard programme for me to watch. But watch it I did. I have great admiration for Peter Smedley and his wonderful wife, Christine, and I defend their decision to wish to avoid a protracted illness, by ending his life far sooner than necessary but when he was still capable of travelling and physically able to take the liquid which would kill him. However I can’t help but wonder what the years ahead would have been like for this gracious, charming couple if they had decided to wait and see.
My dad was diagnosed with the disease in 1994 at the age of 60. I remember hearing the devastating news and, at the time, expecting his life to be over in a couple of years, at most. In fact he lived until 2011, dying peacefully in a hospice at the reasonably ripe old age of 76. In those years he saw the birth of my son, Rory, sat with him completing jigsaws, helped him to draw, read him stories, watched him grow up to be a young man.
His life wasn’t easy, he was virtually immobile in the latter years, but he never wanted his life to end. He endured the indignity of requiring help from carers to wash him and see to his needs, but was then able to sit in his wheelchair, paint, complete crosswords with my mum, watch the TV, listen to music, laugh and be part of a loving family.
I’m so grateful he didn’t decide to make things easier for everyone by choosing to end his life early; he would have missed out on so much. He knew the prognosis but, with the support of everyone around him, lived the life that was given to him to the best of his ability. In his final weeks he received care from excellent Macmillan Nurses and at the end, St Oswald’s Hospice in Newcastle upon Tyne made sure, with their outstanding palliative care, that he didn’t die a painful death. Mum was with him and he just slipped away.
I know there have been complaints about the BBC programme but I found it a very moving film and one which was also balanced. I cried watching Peter taking his own life, his words, “I understand” a constant reply to the questions he was asked regarding his decision. I felt desperately frustrated for the younger man, Andrew, an MS sufferer, who took the same decision to die when, to me, he seemed so full of life, enjoying the sights of Zurich. I wanted to shout, “Stay and enjoy Zurich! Savour every last drop of your life!”
But there was another man who was filmed who seems to have been forgotten in all the post-broadcast debate. Mick, the former taxi-driver, had been suffering from MND for seven years and had made the decision, with the support of his wife, to not take the suicide option. His wife wanted to care for him, they would take it in their stride and they had a fantastic hospice which would be there to care for him. His decision was just as brave as Peter and Andrews’: the progression of his MND is likely to be very hard for him.
I’m not entirely sure where I stand on the idea of euthanasia. I defend Peter and Andrew’s decision to end their lives, I think it sad they should have to travel to Switzerland in order to do this, but I’m also very wary of rushing into providing such a service as a matter of course here. If it had been available in the UK, if it had been the norm to have such an option, would my father have worried about being a burden and therefore taken his own life early?
I think, while the debate continues, the government should support palliative care services in this country so that they aren’t just relying on charitable donations. If everyone had good access to the kind of care my father received, then seeking an early date to shuffle off this mortal coil might not be so critical.