On ‘Choosing to Die’

After watching the documentary ‘Choosing to Die’ and the Newsnight
debate about Assisted Suicide, I was left with very mixed feelings. I have
always believed that if someone is suffering unbearably and they are going to
die, they should be allowed help to die. I always remember hearing a story
about a woman with a brain tumour, whose doctor told her to have someone take
her outside in the cold with wet hair and walk around all day because catching
pneumonia would be a far better way to go. Doctors are helpless, patients and
relatives are helpless. I know a great many people with terminal illness would
not consider AS, and a great many who would seek AS wouldn’t be able to do so.
On the Dignitas website they point out considerably that they will only go with
a green light if they are sure other avenues have been considered, such as
better pain relief. It also interests me that a percentage of people who get a
green light never go to the clinic at all. They say it is a comfort merely to
know AS is possible.

I don’t like the term Assisted Dying. It almost romanticises
the act – no, it is suicide. There is no getting around that. I felt that we
were witnessing people who could live but chose not to. And chose not to early.
I felt for them, Peter and Andrew, and I felt relieved for them. And I did
believe that they should have the right. But what bothers me is that they are
not just taking matters in their own hands but soliciting the help of other
people to die, so that their death is also the responsibility of others. I’m
not sure I could feel as though my conscience would allow me to die with the
aid of another human being. I can imagine that even if you thoroughly believe
in your convictions, if you see people go to die regularly, or you give them
the green light to die it must weigh heavy on your mind.

One thing I can’t understand is that at Dignitas, your
mental state is assessed and you are asked whether you are or have been
depressed. Obviously people who want to die say no, but realistically, how can
you want to die and not be depressed on some scale. Who is being turned away?
Who is being accepted? Who can choose, you can go, but you can’t? It seems
ridiculous, when I take a step back and look at it, that some people are
allowed to die with the aid of another and yet others are being denied. What if
the person is going to commit suicide anyway? There are something like 4,000 -5,000
suicides per year in this country and something like 150 British people have gone
to Dignitas in the last nine years. 5,000 people wanting to die and taking
matters into their own hands. I’m sure all of them would have preferred a quiet
sending off at Dignitas. On the website there is a case history of a nineteen
year old boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a multi storey
building and did not die but was paralysed. Now he would not be able to take
his own life, and there is the problem of his mental state, which must have
been severe to have tried to commit suicide in the first place. I do not know
if he was allowed to die. I don’t envy the doctor who has to make that

What about people with severe enduring mental illness, non
responsive to medication for years on end and no hope for the future? Should
they be allowed to die? They would never be allowed to die. Yet people with a
‘weariness of life’ are allowed to die at Dignitas. Recently, a press article
of a woman with arthritis who did not want gradual decline with old age went to
Dignitas for their help. It seems that there need be better guidelines, but how
do you assert rules onto something like this? I think that first and foremost a
law needs to be introduced which allows AS for the terminally ill in this
country, in their own homes. The majority of people would not need to go
through with this should palliative care be keeping on top of pain.

Choosing to die is complex. The deep sadness with
Alzheimer’s is when the illness is fully manifested you would not be eligible
for Assisted Suicide, as you are not considered mentally capable of making such
a decision. Terry Pratchett would have to die early, if he so wished. Everyone
is afraid of death, and if you anticipate dying in an undignified way, a
painful way, for you and your loved ones, Dignitas offers complete relief from
this. You must have to be brave to go through with it but if you feel you have
no other choice, or that this is your best option, then it must a comfort in
all the difficulty and the illness and despair to know you can go there and go
in your sleep. Who am I to say that is wrong or right? I know what I would want
for myself, should I ever be in a helpless position where death was the best

I don’t think that people who do not wish to grow old or
live with arthritis should be enlisting the help of another human being to
commit suicide. It seems to me, unreasonable. If you are going to ask someone
to help you die, you need to be damn sure you are comfortable with the thought
of someone else’s conscience bearing the weight of your untimely death.

Lots and lots of unanswered questions, but I still believe
Assisted  Suicide needs to be looked into
in this country, even though it is for a small minority. If we strive to cure
pain and save lives then equally we should do everything in our power to help
the passage through to death be peaceful and less traumatic for everyone

I believe it is too difficult to really have an opinion
without being in that situation. I’m sure there are people who have died too
soon at Dignitas, or who have died and could have lived. But I am not against
what they do. I think that Peter and Andrew knew their own mind and wanted out,
and Peter was very brave. The Bishop on Newsnight thought that there was an air
of coercion and a moment of hesitation. I didn’t see that on the film; he was
helped through his decision. He was comforted. I couldn’t help but be
sympathetic to his plight, even though part of me knows he didn’t have to go.

We are all afraid of death. Like Esther Rantzen says, it is
possible to have a good death. There is such a thing. In some circumstances, AS
is nothing but humane. I don’t think, if anything changes, that we’d be looking
at a clinic like Dignitas in Britain, but I hope that at the very least a law
is brought in to help the very, very ill and the dying. The argument is wide
open, and I can appreciate what is being said on all sides of the fence but I
know I couldn’t watch someone I love die horribly in pain if there was the
option of holding them while they fell asleep.