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Proper Gander

Proper Gander

Choosing To Die

These days, the word ‘controversial’ is used more as a selling-point for television programmes than to describe their content or any reactions provoked. So, the BBC’s documentary on assisted suicide Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die was promoted by slots on their website, Breakfast and Newsnight telling us how contentious and important the show would be. There was even a lurid Radio Times cover announcing it would contain “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”. This referred to its scenes of businessman Peter Smedley’s final moments in Switzerland’s Dignitas centre.

Although some of the publicity gave the impression that we would be watching a video nasty, the programme itself would best be described as genteel. Presenter Terry Pratchett has advocated assisted suicide for those able to decide since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, making the documentary more personal than most. He met up with three people with incurable conditions, two of whom decided to travel to Switzerland, where assisted dying is legal. Those thinking about using Dignitas to end their lives were shown calmly and rationally discussing the issue with their families. Their bravery in choosing how to die was, paradoxically, life-affirming.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the vast majority of complaints were made before the programme was aired. Many of Choosing To Die’s opponents accused it of being “pro-assisted suicide propaganda”, as if every programme should blandly present both sides of an argument. The Newsnight discussion attempted to be more balanced, with Jeremy Paxman uncomfortably chairing an unfocused discussion with campaigners on each side. Some interesting criticisms were made by disability rights campaigner Liz Carr. Her arguments apply to the issue as it exists within capitalism rather than assisted dying per se. She was concerned that assisted suicide is dangerous in a society which sees disability as negative, and that it could be a tempting option for those who can’t afford specialist support for life-limiting conditions. However, as Dignitas charges over £3,000, their service is only open to those wealthy enough to afford their own palliative care anyway. In capitalism, it’s not only your quality of life which is dictated by how rich you are, but also your quality of death.

Mike Foster