Pratchett and Assisted Dying: A Question of Balance?

If you’ve not yet seen “Choosing to Die”, Terry Pratchett’s film about Dignitas from Monday night, I recommend that you go and watch it now.  (I don’t know if it’s available outside the UK: I’m sure it’ll appear on YouTube soon, though; or, if you’re outside th UK, get a Brit to download it and put it on a USB for you.  It’s worth it.)  It’s an astonishing piece of film-making: simultaneously gripping, heartbreaking and deeply uncomfortable.  And it raised all kinds of hard questions.  Was Peter Smedley, the man whose death was filmed, making a genuine choice?  He looked as though he was in the process of signing a contract to have his hall decorated, so calm and rational was he.  Wouldn’t you expect a bit less detachment?  A bit less bloody Englishness?  But then, how much emotion do you want?  One of my problems with the unbearable suffering criterion in Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill a few years ago was that the more someone’s suffering, the more it’s legitimate to worry about the clarity of their thought.  Smedley seemed very clear.

And what about Andrew Colgan?  From what we see on the film, he has difficulties – but nothing that other people don’t deal with, and nothing that has to be too terrible.  When he tells Pratchett that he has an appointment booked at Dignitas and then says when it is, it’s a chilling moment.  Isn’t that the wrong time?  But then, the right time is no less wrong.  Having to wait until your life is awful to die is a bit like being unable to leave the casino until you’ve lost your shirt.  Better to die while, as a very dark pun towards the end of the programme says, the going is good.

The Dignitas doctor we see looks at first to be something of an evangelist for assisted dying; but then she says that she wants to help people commit suicide because she’d find herself unable actually to kill.  Is this a consistent position?  I think it is.  An admirable one?  That’s harder.

But it’s Pratchett’s own reaction (and that of his assistant) that makes the film what it is.  We know already that he supports AD; it’s moving to see how he struggles with the reality of it.  He is not proselytising; rather, he’s clearly wrestling with himself and the reality of what he supports.  He doesn’t change his mind, but he’s clearly uncomfortable.

The film has been criticised by some.  Damian Thompson called it a “plug for Dignitas” in his Telegraph blog, which it certainly wasn’t: the clinic that foreigners have to use is a mock-up suburban house on an industrial estate.  It’s decorated tastefully but blandly; it looks a bit like patients are going to Center Parcs to die.  The staff come across as personable, but also a bit distant.  (Mind you: would you want them not to be?)  If this is a plug, it’s pretty inept.  Mind you, Thompson also falls back on the preferred tactic of his erstwhile Telegraph colleague George Pitcher in combining ad hominem attacks with lamentable levels of thought:

You have to say this for Sir Terry: Alzheimer’s has not dented his self-regard. On the contrary, he seems to think it gives him the moral authority to campaign for the legalisation of a really serious criminal act.

(I hate to point it out, but the action is only a criminal act by virtue of the law.  Since noone denies that it’s serious, Thompson seems to be saying that we should only legalise legal stuff.)

The Telegraph seems to have had it in for the film from the start, though.  Tuesday’s edition said that the BBC had been “flooded” with complaints.  898 people had been in touch – but that seems like a very small flood, given viewing figures in the millions.  And I’m genuinely puzzled about what the nature of the complaint might be.  Had they actually been watching the same film as I?

The corporation said 898 people had registered their disapproval of the documentary presented by the author Sir Terry Pratchett, with 162 fresh complaints since it aired on Monday night. [emphasis mine]

Ah.  That’ll be a “No”, then.  So of the 898 complaints about the programme, 82% were received before it was even shown.  They can’t, therefore, be complaints about the programme, so much as being about the very idea of the programme.  (For its part, the Mail doesn’t even admit that 736 of the complaints were received before the programme was shown.)

For its part, the Christian Institute was marshalling the troops days before the programme aired, with articles that called it “shameless propaganda” and claimed that it may cause “copycat suicides“.  Again, though, these were published prior to broadcast, it’s hard to see how they could be held to be well-grounded.  An item from after the broadcast called the film biased – but you’d hardly expect it to say anything else.  And I wonder what might count as a non-biased film anyway?

This was, explicitly, a film about people who’d decided to go to Dignitas.  It wasn’t about proclaiming the virtues of assisted dying: as I’ve said, we know where Pratchett stands, and the film made it abundantly clear how hard he found being confronted with the reality of that belief.  So it’s hard to know what “more balance” would look like.  Balance isn’t just about having equal numbers of talking heads gainsaying each other – and it’s not obvious what there would be to gainsay in this programme anyway, since it didn’t advance any claims.  “Balance” in the CI’s view could mean someone on the programme rehearsing the arguments against AD – which would have missed the point of the programme to begin with (on which note, Geoff Morris has a column in the Mail about the programme in which he rehearses the familiar worries about AD, and it’s not a bad piece – but it is nevertheless a piece about the problems of AD that uses the Pratchett film as a hook; it doesn’t really address the film directly); or it could mean not showing the film at all.  But that wouldn’t be balance, either – it’d just mean continued ignorance.

Death at Dignitas, from the looks of this film, may be the best death that some people think they can have; but it’s not a good death.  On the other hand, what is?

(H/T to Ophelia Benson for some of the links)

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