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Terry Pratchett: An Emissary from Discworld

2010 February 5
by Paul Vallely

Terry Pratchett was both marvellously funny and moving this week in his Richard Dimbleby lecture which he entitled Shaking Hands With Death. The novelist told the story of how he came to terms – or in some ways refused to do anything so tame or timid – with the prospect of his inexorably approaching death from a rare form of Alzheimer’s.

It was an emotional tour de force which created its own language and logic, full of fine rhetorical flourishes about man being “a rising ape rather than a falling angel” and suffering people and their families “locked in the aspic of the law”. No-one who watched him will forget simultaneously vivid and self-deprecating images like “I had seen the bicycle clips of fire”. But at the heart of it was something fundamentally misconceived.

Assisted suicide is an idea whose time is coming has come, he said, referring to a succession of cases like that of Kay Gilderdale who was last week cleared by a jury of attempted murder after helping her daughter, Lynn.

In support he cited an opinion poll which said that 73% of people believed that friends or relatives should be able to assist in the suicide of a loved one who is terminally ill – though, interestingly, that figure fell to 48% in cases where the illness was not terminal, as in the case of Ms Gilderdale’s daughter who had incapacitating ME.

Such cases are far from simple, as the distressing 30 hour gap between Lynn taking the morphine and her dying showed – with her mother giving further medication, injecting Lynn with air and desperately searching the internet for other methods.

But even were such cases are clear-cut Terry Pratchett’s instinct for compassion only takes us so far. His insistence that “we should look to the medical profession that has helped us to live healthier lives to help us die peacefully among our loved ones” involves a category mistake. And there was something faintly preposterous about his idea of “tribunals” to give people legal permission to end their lives, and Mr Pratchett sensed that.

The most powerful practical argument against legalising assisted suicide, as he acknowledged, is that the present law acts as a powerful deterrent which protects vulnerable people against exploitation and abuse. His counter-argument was that in places where the law has been changed, like Oregon, there is no evidence of it having a deleterious effect on the wider community.

This is unconvincing for several reasons. The pressures older people might feel to end their lives to avoid being a burden on others could well be highly subtle, conveyed in just a glance or grunt. Who is to say they do not feature in the fourfold increase in suicides in Oregon and elsewhere, which would measure a thousand or more extrapolated to a bigger population like Britain. Moreover the changes involved may be so nuanced that it would take a considerable time for them to permeate the culture. And we certainly know that the abuse of old, sick and disabled people within outwardly loving families is far from uncommon.

Terry Pratchett is a child of his times. Our society’s default position is to elevate the rights of the individual above the common good in a way which is routinely out of balance. It also often places the interests of a resolute and articulate minority above those of a passive or silent majority. And we routine legislate 100% for a 10% problem.

“My life, my death, my choice,” Mr Pratchett demanded. But his choice must not come at the cost of no choice for those who are less wealthy and more vulnerable than him. The law stands as an effective deterrent, and the 16 mitigating factors set out by the director of public prosecutions in such cases last year are insurance enough that the law will continue to be interpreted with common sense and compassion.


From the Church Times

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