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In Theory: Should we be allowed to choose to die?

June 22, 2011

Q. British author Sir Terry Pratchett recently presented a BBC documentary called “Choosing To Die,” about assisted suicide. Pratchett, the bestselling author of the “Discworld” series of fantasy novels, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2008. He is a patron of Dying In Dignity, a group that lobbies for the laws in the UK to be changed to give terminally ill people control over ending their lives, and has said, “I believe everybody possessed of a debilitating and incurable disease should be allowed to pick the hour of their death.”

The documentary kicked up a storm in the UK by broadcasting the final moments of Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old motor-neurone disease sufferer who traveled to a clinic in Switzerland run by Dignitas, an assisted-suicide group. Smedley is shown drinking a cocktail of barbiturates while his wife sits next to him. Although the camera cuts away from his face, his final words — “My wife’s very good at putting me to sleep just by rubbing my hands. Be strong, my darling.”— are clear.

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In a blog post, Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, calls Dignitas “agents of death.” He adds, “The Judaeo-Christian tradition is a surer guide. 'Thou shalt not kill' is about acknowledging the gift and dignity of human life — which, whether ours or another’s, we do not have the competence to take.”

Care Not Killing, a British-based alliance that is strenuously opposed to any assisted-suicide laws, said, “There is a real risk that copycat suicides will follow the screening [of the documentary].”

Should a terminally ill patient be allowed to choose the time and manner of his or her death? Is it more ethical to keep someone alive who wants to die than it is to allow them to die at a time of their own choosing?


Questions about life — the right to it, the right to end it, and who decides — occupy our column this week and last. These matters are deeply personal and intensely private, yet so fundamental that we must discuss them candidly in public.

My problem with those who would interfere with life decisions is that many who oppose abortion seem to believe that the right to life begins at conception and ends at birth, but also oppose public help for needy families. Some who think suffering people shouldn't be allowed to end their mental or physical pain also want government to stay out of our Medicare.

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