02 February 2012

Terry Pratchett and the Right-to-Die Debate

A.S. Byatt caused a stir some years back when she publicly disparaged the phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, describing them as little more than a comfortable patchwork of clichés, unworthy of comparison with the writings of such fantasists as Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, or Terry Pratchett. Pratchett, she felt, was an author unfairly neglected, notable for – among other things – his amazing sentences, his metaphysical wit, and the startling originality with which he dealt with death.

I’ve long agreed with her. Pratchett’s books fill a shelf at home, many if not most of them graced with his signature, mementos of all the times in Dublin and Manchester I’d queued for hours to thank him for the joy he’d given me, to describe playing a parade of characters in an amateur production based on his Wyrd Sisters, and to talk of another of Beaconsfield’s great authors, G.K. Chesterton.

Pratchett had largely been responsible for leading me to Chesterton, whose writings had in turn been instrumental in drawing me back to the Faith, so I’ve always felt I owe him a great debt.

Pratchett’s books regularly strike a Chestertonian note. We might think of the clear debt Monstrous Regiment owes to The Man Who Was Thursday, the philosophical outlook that sees the most tired of preconceptions turned on their head, or snippets of wisdom that recognise that life is a gift, with human life being perhaps the most precious gift of all, and that there can be no true standard by which things can be judged moral in a wholly material universe.

The profundity of Pratchett’s writing demonstrates how right Chesterton was when he explained how foolish it is to assume funniness and seriousness are incompatible.

In 1998’s Carpe Jugulam, for instance, right after dismissing the question of how many angels could dance on the end of a pin by airily saying that if the pin in question is a typical household pin then the answer is ‘sixteen’, Pratchett’s hard-headed witch Granny Weatherwax addresses her priestly travelling companion in a far more pointed fashion:
‘And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’
‘It’s a lot more complicated than that--’
‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better working definition of sin.

I was horrified to learn in December 2007 that Pratchett was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, though I applauded how he subsequently used his plight to campaign for increased research into Alzheimer’s and to help people understand the condition, all the while continuing to write books to delight and enrich us.

Within two years of disclosing his condition, however, Pratchett announced that he had no intention of dying naturally and hoped to be helped to end his life when he felt the time was right; since then he has become Britain’s most prominent advocate of assisted suicide, despite the fact that he believes that his wife would like to look after him through his illness until the very end.

This advocacy bore fruit some weeks ago with the publication in Britain of the findings of the privately-appointed ‘Commission on Assisted Dying’, which argued that adults diagnosed with less than a year to live should be allowed to request and receive medication to help end their lives, and which scorned the current status of assisted suicide in British law as inadequate and incoherent.

Wrongly and all-too-frequently presented as an independent body, the Commission was independent only in the sense that a lynch mob could be described as an independent jury; unofficial but by no means impartial, it was proposed by the lobby group known until 2005 as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and was largely funded by Terry Pratchett.

While it may be too easy to sneer that whoever pays the piper calls the tune, it can hardly be accidental that the Commission’s chair, Lord Falconer, and nine of the eleven other commissioners began their work as known supporters of assisted suicide.

More than fifty organizations boycotted the Commission in response to its blatant bias; the British Medical Association publicly questioned the Commission’s independence and impartiality. This had not been the case with the House of Lords’ 1994 Select Committee on Medical Ethics or its comprehensive and wide-ranging 2004-5 Select Committee on Assisted Dying, which received more than 14,000 submissions from the public and took evidence from more than 140 expert witnesses in four countries before recommending that there should be no change in the law on this matter.

None of Ireland’s national broadsheets saw fit to mention any of this in their scant coverage of the private commission’s findings, just as they neglected to report that the vast majority of Britain’s healthcare professionals are opposed to assisted suicide, and that among the most prominent opponents of assisted suicide are all the UK’s major disability rights organizations.

That such bodies should oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide shouldn’t surprise us; they recognise that a right to die, once enshrined in law, could all too easily become a duty to die, especially for the most vulnerable and least obviously productive among us.

We should remember how the hugely influential Baroness Warnock, Britain’s leading moral philosopher, argued in 2008 that dementia sufferers should consider taking their own lives rather than inconveniencing others and wasting taxpayers’ money, an argument that was roundly condemned by, among others, leading figures in the Alzheimer’s Society and the Alzheimer’s Research Trust.

Tragic though cases such as Terry Pratchett’s are, it’s worth keeping in mind how it has been at least a decade -- perhaps longer -- since anyone has been prosecuted for helping a loved one take their own life. Hard cases make bad law, and as Peter Smith, Archbishop of Southwark, has said, we cannot change laws that are there to protect the vulnerable without grave long term consequences. Campaigns to legalise assisted suicide distract from our need to put our efforts into improving palliative care, so that when we die, we can do so with real dignity.

In his controversial 2011 documentary, Choosing to Die, Pratchett said that ‘When I can no longer write my books, I'm not sure that I will want to go on living’.

The idea that some lives aren’t worth living ran through the programme, but we are more than our abilities. We matter because of our humanity; only things have value merely because of what they can do.

People as things, that’s where it starts.

-- from The Irish Catholic, 26 January 2012

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