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.
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.
Needless agony simply shouldn't be tolerated in a rational, advanced society. A life so painful that it cannot be eased should be allowed to end, with assistance if needed. Yes, it is killing, but it is merciful. In rare cases, in accordance with the patient's wishes and the best ethical guidelines, care may equal letting someone go.
In other cases, I suggest that forthwith we adopt “care not killing” as our minimum standard guiding all policy, foreign and domestic.
This is one of those topics that I think I am going to get mail about either way. While I do believe there is a moral standard we are to live by as Christians, I also know we are fallen humans, we feel great emotional and physical pain, and we are forgiven. So if someone is terminally ill and in grave pain, I cannot judge their humanness.
I can be clear on what my beliefs are, but to blatantly write here that it is a “sin and wrong,” is not going to be helpful to someone suffering who has chosen this path. Judgment won’t talk them out of it or show them another way; but grace and love might.
I know that this is another one of those topics that Christians will give a resolving, “Sin!” shout to, just as they might divorce, abortion and emotional or sexual affairs. But I have learned that the world and human life is just not that cut-and-dry. People suffer, and suffering leads to choices perhaps never reached if pain hadn’t been involved.
So I am aware my stance here may be different from other responses. But I treat too many people who have not been able to be “perfect” and make moral decisions amidst pain — and I know they love God and they are in agony. So I personally understand from a professional point of view and I do not judge. I just try to do my small part to listen and guide in love. Then, it is every human’s right to make their own decisions.
I believe if we are saved, we are forgiven. I do not know what God thinks about this when someone is in too much pain to “not kill,” but I do know he frowns on adultery and murder; and yet King David was a man after God’s own heart — and forgiven. So isn’t every Christian?