Review: Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. BBC2 Mon 13/06/11, 9pm.

The Boy Wonder has always told me if “anything happens” that leaves him unable to do for himself or with no dignity or no quality of life to switch the machines off or push him off a cliff. It’s been said flippantly, as though “it would never happen to us”. We’re young and most young people believe they are immune to tragedy. However, as you get older, you see those around you deteriorate with all sorts of mental and physical illnesses and you realise that eventually it could be you.

Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary on BBC2 drove reality of assisted suicide home to me.

Having previously felt that it is your right to choose, this documentary really made me consider my feelings on the subject and now I am not so sure.

Let’s deal with the documentary itself before I go into the issues covered. It was nicely shot, with plenty of heart at its core. Lots of beautiful shots of Switzerland. The subject was obviously emotive and was dealt with sensitivity but also it didn’t shy away from confronting taboos which is what we need from documentaries.

I understand that ‘Choosing to Die’ was Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary and therefore was shot with his opinions at the fore but I would have preferred a bit more balance. Pratchett mentioned that assisted suicide is a sensitive subject for more, religious and logistical / legal reasons but it would have been a better documentary if some of those views had been expressed. I would also like to have seen some people who visited Dignitas but then changed their minds – even perhaps at the last moment.

Although they spoke to Mick Gordelier, who was residing in a hospice, I felt the argument was totally in favour of assisted suicide, and made very little attempt to show the alternatives. I felt that the ending of the documentary seemed a bit too much like emotional blackmail. We watched a man die but it was hammed up by some soft music and shots of snow.

Sir Terry started this programme off by saying he is worried about the future since being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. With or without a diagnosis, isn’t everyone worried about the future, particularly aging? Getting older is never going to be easy. Granted, some people find it a lot easier than others.

As an articulate man who works with words, Terry – understandably – fears the day that he will no longer be able to dictate his stories to his assistant Rob. If you can’t do what defined you, how will you go on?

I think the most difficult thing to endure as an intelligent person is the loss of your memory or ability to articulate yourself.

For my grandmother, who suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis from the age of sixty-five (almost immediately after her retirement), she had been an entirely self-sufficient woman all of her life and had cared for several members of her family over the course of her life. She worked full-time, as well as running a house and decorating her own home when necessary. She enjoyed playing the piano but had to sell the piano after her hands became too gnarled to play. The whole of my life, my Nana was housebound and unable to do for herself. The biggest insult to her was that she had worked so hard and was unable to even get out of her chair. The loss of dignity was insurmountable. My Nana endured nearly two decades, countless operations, experimental trials and misery but she died naturally.

My Nana’s condition was hard on everyone. My mum looked after her full-time and it put an enormous strain on our family life. Our childhoods were organised around my mum’s routine of caring for my Nana, hospital visits and then, after my mum was in a car accident that left her unable to lift my Nana, she had to make the heartbreaking decision of putting my Nana in a home. As an only child, my Mum felt very alone in this decision and there was nothing she could do about it – she was physically unable to lift my Nana anymore and medical professionals said she must go in a home. Would my Nana have asked for help to die? I think so. When we used to say “See you tomorrow”, she’d replied “If I’m still here.” I think she used to hope she wouldn’t be.

After seeing my Nana’s journey and realising the impact it has on everyone involved, I did support Dignitas’s mission statement. I understand why someone would want to die with dignity, before having to rely on family – or worse, strangers – having to dress them, bathe them and toilet them amongst other things.

I understand that people say they don’t allow their pets to suffer and a lot of illnesses are excruciatingly painful. But now I am not sure whether I disagree with assisted suicide altogether. I used to think it was something, like abortion, where I agreed with the individual’s right to choose but wasn’t sure if I could do it myself. Perhaps I still feel like that – I can argue both sides to this arguments.

I’m not sure I could sit beside TBW while he took a lethal drink. But isn’t it selfish of me to think I’d rather he was alive than free from pain?

Take the case on last night’s programme of seventy-one year old Peter Smedley who suffered from Motor Neurone Disease. His wife of forty years, Christine, accompanied him to Switzerland and sat beside him in his dying moments. Whilst watching Christine’s calm and supportive attitude, I felt that Christine was hoping Peter would back out. I’m not sure, even as they sat waiting to receive the drugs that would end Peter’s life, she really believed it would happen.

Mrs Smedley could potentially be jailed for up to fourteen years just for accompanying her husband to Switzerland. Before he was given the fatal dose, Christine stood up, distancing herself from her husband. She explained “I don’t want to appear to be assisting him.” Dignitas recorded the suicide for legal reasons.

What about the people who accompany those to Switzerland? Don’t the people care that they may end up in jail? The British Legal System does state that love and compassion will be taken into consideration when sentencing but assisted suicide is still illegal.

What about the wedding vows you made to each other? To love and to cherish, in sickness and in health. But really, those vows themselves can be seen as contradictory in this situation. Terry Pratchett says he doesn’t want his wife to have to look after him during the final stages of his life. When asked “What if your wife wants to look after you?” he responds “She says she does. But I don’t think she knows as much about it as I do.” Sir Terry has been married to his wife, Lyn, for over forty years – doesn’t she get a say?

Since 1998, Dignitas – a non-profit organisation who asks for £10,000 to assist people in suicide – has helped 1100 people take their own lives. Their founder, Ludwig A. Minelli, says he believes in Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention which gives all humans the right to self-determination. As a lawyer, he studied all legalities and he believes self-determination also entitles a human to the right to die. What worries me about this is where does this self-determination end? What about someone who suffers from mental illness? 21% of the people Dignitas has helped to die did not have a progressive or terminal illness but a general “weariness of life”.

 I was struck by this thought when watching Terry interview forty-two year-old Andrew Colgan, a sufferer of Multiple Sclerosis. Andrew told Terry his daily routine involved falling out of bed and crawling from room to room. He described his condition as an ever-narrowing alley with no escape. He had already attempted suicide twice. Watching Andrew talk to Terry, I was struck at how depressed Andrew seemed. I wondered if he had really had all – or any – help from his local primary care trust. His description of the alley and fear of the future sounded more like a depressed person talking. I understand someone with MS will be depressed but he didn’t appear to look forward to death as a release the way Peter Smedley did. Even Terry, after leaving Andrew’s home, said “He’s just a kid”. Andrew had booked his journey to Switzerland for the following week.

When Sir Terry and Rob saw Andrew in Switzerland, the night before he was scheduled to die, Andrew said he’d “fallen in love with Zürich”. He said he looked around and thought “Do I really have to go?” I thought this was indicative of Andrew’s state of mind. Maybe he was suffering from a weariness of his every day life but a change of scenery had changed his outlook, as it can with sufferers of depression. Sadly, it hadn’t. Andrew Colgan died on 9th December 2010.

Sir Terry and Rob toasted Andrew while listening to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ which Andrew had intended to have played as he died. He had given a list of his favourite songs to Terry and seeing Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ – one of TBW’s favourites – totally floored me. Terry talked about how he wished Andrew was in England, dying in his own home. Having previously spoken to Andrew’s mum, she said it was sad that they’d had to travel so far to fulfill his wish.

The Dignitas apartment which is located on an industrial estate in Zürich. Although it looks nice enough inside, the apartment is essentially a corrugated iron building with a factory as a neighbour. The Swiss authorities have deemed that assisted suicide for non-Swiss nationals must not occur in residential areas. The apartment has two rooms which means two people could be dying at the same time, I don’t understand how that can be deemed dignified.

Peter Smedley invited Sir Terry to be there when he died. There was an air of false jollity about it, she sat sorting chocolates out for him to eat after taking the poison. Peter was awfully polite and they could have easily just have been waiting for a train with him asking how long they’d been there and making banal small talk.

 The Dignitas representative explained what would happen and asked Peter several times if he wanted to go ahead. Even after taking the poison, Peter remained polite and thanked everyone for their help.  It was also revealed in a newspaper this week that Peter had sent letters to friends, delivered after his trip to Switzerland. Peter Smedley died on 10th December 2010.

Andrew Colgan left behind two brothers as well as his parents. Peter Smedley left his wife Christine, aged 60, and his twenty year old daughter.

What about those left behind? Not just the fact that whoever accompanied the person to Switzerland may face prosecution but how must Peter Smedley’s daughter feel?

After Peter Smedley had been shown coughing and asking for water, he fell into a deep sleep, snoring loudly. At this point, Erika the Dignitas escort, told Christine Smedley that he would feel nothing as his heart stopped. Christine Smedley then asked Terry Pratchett if he was alright. Even in the most devastating circumstances, she remained quintessentially British. Terry Pratchett’s conclusion? “This was a happy event”.

When I watched this documentary, I couldn’t help but feel utterly disturbed by what was happening. I understand Dignitas stick to very stringent guidelines in what they do but I still got the feeling that what I was watching was wrong. I’m not particularly religious and I did look at this subject objectively but perhaps it’s my optimistic outlook – I would rather we could find treatments and cures and eventually preventions for these diseases. My grandmother helped make medical advances by taking part in drugs trials and experimental therapies. Although the illness was too advanced in my Nana, she essentially donated her body to medical research when she was still alive. As a human being, would you not like to contribute to the future, even if it is too late for you?

I also worry about where assisted suicide ends. If it was legal in the UK, would the age of consent be 18? At 18, are people mature enough to make that decision? I know at the age of 18 I placed a lot of emphasis on things that, with the benefit of hindsight, I know were nowhere near as important as I thought they were at the time. If Dignitas is willing to help people who are suffering from a weariness of life to die, how do they decide who to help? How do they know one person’s weariness is more or less than another person’s?

What about the vulnerable people in society? At Dignitas, you need to be able to prove you are of sound mind and are not being coerced in any way. You also need to be able to pick the poison up and administer it yourself (by drinking it). Therefore, it seems people are having to choose to go to Switzerland before their illness progresses beyond that point. If assisted suicide was legalised in the UK, I would like to see very strict regulations as to how people are assessed and how the vulnerable can be protected.

That said, Dignitas has been at the centre of several serious allegations. Despite being a non-profit organisation, they refuse to make their books public. In April 2010, over 60 cremation urns were found in Lake Zürich, bearing the logo of the crematorium used by Dignitas. A former employee, Soraya Wernli told The Times tha over the previous 18 months, over 300 urns had been dumped in the lake. Soraya Wernli also stated that she felt the organisation was simply interested in profits, she called it a “production line of death”. In Wernli’s investigation into the fees, she found that many wealthy and vulnerable people had bequeathed large sums of money to Ludwig Minelli as well as paying for the assistance. In 2008, two Dignitas employees were caught trying to pour the ashes of twenty people into the lake.

America has legalised assisted suicide in three states: Montana, Washington and Oregon. Is Britain next?

Did you see the programme? What are your thoughts on this topic?

Vic x

Watch ‘Choosing to Die’ on iPlayer:


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