Writer says terminally ill should have the choice of assisted dying

By staff writers
July 1, 2009

The English novelist Terry Pratchett, known for his sharp and comical writing in the fantasy genre, has said he believes it is ethical to allow people to be able to choose an assisted death "when medicine cannot do any more".

Mr Pratchett has recorded his thoughts on film for the British Humanist Association, of which he is a member.

The writer, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, made his intervention ahead of a vote in the House of Lords on part of the law on assisted dying. If passed, this would remove the threat of prosecution from friends and relatives who, out of compassion, accompany terminally ill loved ones to a country where assisted dying is legal.

The author, best known for his 'Discworld' series, says: "An individual’s personal decision should, I think, be honoured if it's clearly been made by them when they're in a state of compos mentis and in full control of their faculties."

He continued: "I'm thinking of a sensible decision that at point x, a life should stop without pain, without undue suffering. And I'm talking here about pain and undue suffering to those who are left behind as well. It seems sensible and generous."

"Either we have control over our lives or we do not. I don’t believe that life is a gift from God, because I don't believe there is a god in the sense that people think of that. We should be more open about this sort of thing. Not too clinical. But a little bit of philosophy, I find, is very helpful at times like this."

The BHA has long been involved in the debates around assisted dying. It defends "the ethical principles of the right of each individual to live by her/his own personal values and the freedom to make decisions about her/his own life so long as this does not result in harm to others."

Naomi Phillips, BHA Public Affairs Officer, commented: "With around 80 per cent of the public, whether religious or non-religious, supporting assisted dying for the terminally ill, with strict safeguards, it’s time parliamentarians took steps to modernise the law. The amendment put down for debate in the Lords represents a small but significant step to making the law governing assisted dying more ethical, more compassionate and more reflective of the attitudes of today’s society."

However, others disagree. Faith groups and organisations involved with the elderly and people living with disabilities fear that a change in the law will open the door to full-scale euthanasia. They are concerned that some people will feel themselves to be a "burden" and be pushed towards ending their lives and that people with infirmities or incurable illnesses will be made to feel that their lives are somehow less valuable.

Christians from a range of different traditions have different responses to the particular legislative proposals - with some opposing any change and others believing that strongly safeguarded provision for assisted death in the case of people who cannot recover, should be considered. The major denominations have urged strong caution.

Religious believers are united in the belief that life is a gift - the point specifically denied by Pratchett and the BHA - and are concerned that a loss of this conviction will lead to a loss of the valuing of life itself.

In a survey conducted around the last major debate over Lord Joffe's bill, around 60 per cent of Anglicans thought that the law should allow those with terminal illnesses to have control over the timing and nature of their death but the leadership of the Church of England has steered in a different direction.

Strong, antagonistic lobby groups have formed on both sides of the issue, with some on the anti-assisted dying side being accused by its proponents of scaremongering. Counter-accusations of "euthanasia by stealth" have been made.

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