Best selling author Sir Terry Pratchett has used a BBC lecture to call for the creation of assisted suicide tribunals, a move which critics say would undermine legal protection for the vulnerable and elderly.
The pro-euthanasia campaigner, who has Alzheimer’s, suggested doctors should help a person to die if the individual is deemed by a tribunal to be of sound mind at the time of the decision.
But Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, an independent Peer and professor of palliative medicine, said licensing assisted suicide would be a “very dangerous step” because it would remove protection and “suck all sorts of people in”.
Sir Terry made his remarks at the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture broadcast on BBC One last night.
In his keynote address, Shaking Hands With Death, Sir Terry dismissed fears that elderly and vulnerable people will be put at risk if legal protection is removed.
He said tribunals could determine a person’s mental state when making the decision to die.
Sir Terry said: “I think it would be rather better if a person wishes to die, they could go see the tribunal with friends and relatives and present their case – at least if it happens, it happens with, as it were, authority.”
He suggested his proposed “non-aggressive” tribunals should include a legal expert in family affairs and a doctor familiar with long-term illness.
Sir Terry hit out at the Care Not Killing alliance who campaign in favour of better care and against assisted suicide.
He said: “There are those of us who don’t wish to be cared for and who do not want to spend their time in anyone’s ‘waiting room’. We want the right not to do what we are told by a nurse, and not to obey the doctor.
“A right, in my case, to demand here and now the power of attorney over the fate of the Terry Pratchett that, at some future date, I will become”.
The BBC also broadcast a Panorama programme last night about a poll it commissioned suggesting a swing in support for assisted suicide.
Critics have accused the corporation of having an agenda after airing two programmes heavily supporting assisted suicide ahead of the publication of assisted suicide guidelines from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
The DPP published draft guidelines in September following a Law Lords ruling in favour of assisted suicide campaigner Debbie Purdy’s demand for additional guidance on the application of the law.
The final policy is expected to be published this Spring.
The BBC claimed the airing of two assisted suicide programmes on the same night was “pure coincidence”.
Responding to the Panorama poll, Director of Care Not Killing, Dr Peter Saunders, said results of polling tend to be coloured when emotive cases have recently been in the news.
He went on to say: “To argue that if you are terminally ill you deserve less protection from the law than do the rest of us is highly discriminatory as well as dangerous.
“Many cases of abuse involving elderly, sick and disabled people occur in the context of so-called ‘loving families’ and the blanket prohibition of intentional killing or assisting suicide is there to ensure that vulnerable people are not put at risk.”
Baroness Finlay told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme it was “hardly surprising” the Panorama poll had found public support for assisted suicide because “opinion polls reflect the way something is presented in the media”.
She emphasised that licensing assisted suicide would be a “very dangerous step”.
Referring to the US state of Oregon where assisted suicide is legal, she said “the number of assisted suicides has gone up fourfold – if that is translated to Britain, we are not talking about a small number, we are talking about a thousand a year”.
She argued that people contemplating suicide had ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ and changed their mind about assisted suicide.
“If you give someone a licence at one point of time, you don’t know what will happen after that, there is scope for all kinds of things to happen, like coercion,” she said.
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human.
She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.
Matt Hampson is a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“You just don’t know what will happen”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, palliative care specialist Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”