Should a life be yours to end?

File photo dated 01/02/10 of author Sir Terry Pratchett. The BBC has defended its decision to film a man's last moments at the Dignitas clinic in a documentary fronted by Sir Terry Pratchett. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday June 7, 2011. In a five-minute sequence in the BBC2 programme, the best-selling author witnesses Peter, a British man in his early 70s who has motor neurone disease, taking his own life at the Swiss clinic. See PA story MEDIA Death. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
File photo dated 01/02/10 of author Sir Terry Pratchett. The BBC has defended its decision to film a man's last moments at the Dignitas clinic in a documentary fronted by Sir Terry Pratchett. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday June 7, 2011. In a five-minute sequence in the BBC2 programme, the best-selling author witnesses Peter, a British man in his early 70s who has motor neurone disease, taking his own life at the Swiss clinic. See PA story MEDIA Death. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
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ALL human life is precious – we all agree with that.

But the question of who has the right to end it when pain becomes too difficult to bear is a sensitive and difficult subject which is once more in the spotlight following a BBC documentary by author Sir Terry Pratchett.

Sir Terry, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008, travelled to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland to see for himself the procedures set out for those seeking assisted death when serious illness destroys their quality of life, to the extent they would rather be released from their suffering.

The highly emotive programme, which focussed on the death of millionaire hotelier Peter Smedley, has sparked a deluge of complaints from those who claim it was a vehicle for championing the euthanasia cause.

But the BBC said last Monday’s film would help viewers “make up their own minds”.

Among those wanting to see a change in the law to allow British citizens to seek medical help to die is Fylde Euro MP Chris Davies, who has witnessed how such laws are applied in other European nations including Belgium and the Netherlands.

He argues the availability of assistance gives comfort and release to those desperate for a way out.

He told The Gazette: “I think most of us could imagine ourselves in the position of Peter Smedley, Here you are, perfectly intelligent but you have a condition like motor neurone disease which is shutting your body down.

“It’s a living death.

“Approaching 200 British people have now gone to Dignitas in Switzerland to seek medical help to die, and many more have gone and decided they don’t want to do it.”

But instead of having to travel abroad, Mr Davies says British people should be able to die in their own homes with their families around them as is available to citizens of the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.

And he adds for many people in “unendurable pain”, knowing there is a way out offers them comfort even if it is a choice that ultimately they decide not to take.

He said: “A lot don’t choose to die in that way, but take comfort from knowing it is an option, and that they don’t need to go to hospital and lose control of their destiny.”

He believes procedures in other countries have proved an assisted death law would not be abused.

Mr Davies said: “The procedures are you must have at least two doctors to give their consent, the patient must have made the request repeatedly and in writing over a period of time.

“If there is any suggestion of outside influence, then the doctor will face prosecution.

“The argument that there are no safeguards is not borne out in Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“The Coalition Government should find the courage to introduce legislation on the issue. While I accept MPs should have a free vote, it is unacceptable that people in appalling circumstances should have to travel to Switzerland to have their wishes respected.”

Care Not Killing is a UK-based alliance bringing together disability and human rights organisations, health care and palliative care groups, and faith-based organisations.

It is opposed to assisted death and instead works to promote better palliative care for people battling serious illnesses.

Their spokesman said no one should have to suffer unendurable pain when organisations such as the hospice movement can ensure patients get the dignity they deserve in their final days.

He said: “We need to ensure everyone has access to the outstanding level of palliative care that is obviously available in some hospices but which is not universal.

“Most countries in the world are against assisted dying and in this country there has been at least four votes on it since 2006 and it has been rejected.

“Doctors and nurses organisations have also voted against it. Those people most involved in delivering end of life care are saying this is not necessary.

“I think there are a lot of people who fear if they have a long-term debilitating condition that is going to become worse, they will become a burden on their family and the state.

“But we should never be in a position where the right to die becomes a duty to die and we should guard against this.”

In a TV debate following the airing of his programme, Sir Terry defended it saying: “I believe it should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.”

In another interview he said: “You can tell in the film that I’m moved. The incongruity of the situation overtakes you. A man has died, that’s a bad thing, but he wanted to die, that’s a good thing.”

shelagh.parkinson @blackpoolgazette.co.uk