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Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Dying with dignity – and those who want to prevent it

There’s talk of suicide in Brighton, UK, today. But there are those who’d like to stop it.

Yesterday, it was Bournemouth’s turn, when “euthanasia expert” Philip Nitschke chose the town as the first stop on a UK tour championing assisted suicide.

“The town’s great and good did their best to keep him at bay,” says the Guardian, “and immigration officials pounced when he arrived at Heathrow airport. But today [Tuesday] at a hotel in Bournemouth, Philip Nitschke, also known as Dr Death, calmly explained to 100 middle-aged and elderly people how, if they chose, they could take their own lives.”

Known to whom as Dr Death? Known only to his critics, I assume, but we are not told.

One person who will be at the Brighthelm Centre at 1 p.m. today is Barry Duke, editor of the Freethinker and its blog. He writes:

Let me assure readers that I am in no way suicidal – but I, alongside around 80 percent of the British population, support the legalisation of assisted suicide, and I passionately believe that adults of a sound mind should be allowed to attend any gathering where the issue can be discussed in a dispassionate, rational way.

But Duke talks of one Dr Peter Saunders, general secretary of Christian Medical Fellowship, who says, “We’d like to see these talks stopped. He is effectively offering a loaded gun to people who need support.”

He wants to see the talks stopped. He knows, presumably, that Nitschke won’t be breaking the law and handing out lethal substances. So it’s just the talks he wants to stop. He doesn’t want people even to talk about it.

Nitschke makes the point that suicide is legal, so where’s the harm in telling people about it? “They simply cannot get information and they become more desperate, and desperate people do desperate things,” he says.

The Guardian quotes Father Anthony Pennicott, of the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church, who says, “This is not the answer. The issue should be debated in a more sane, orderly manner.”

Well, of course, the church is always wheeled on, as if anyone speaking on its behalf could possibly have a rational opinion.

A priest may well have an informed opinion as a person, but it’s up to him or her to speak from a different “pulpit”, as it were. Bringing on the religionists every time assisted suicide – or suicide at all – is mentioned is just crap journalism, as is the biased, clichéd headline, worthy of the Star, the Express or the Sun: “Dr Death” gives right-to-die lesson to seaside retirement town.

One chap who attended the Bournemouth event, Edward Gwinnell, who’s 79, tells the Guardian, “I wanted to learn more about Exit. It’s designed to get you a peaceful exit from this life. I don’t want to degenerate into an unthinking mess who needs constant care and attention. I want to be able to make my exit with dignity. Human beings have the right to the truth and discussion. We should be able to discuss things. It is a country of free speech.”

Well, that last sentence is debatable when people are barred from the country for wanting to speak and people are afraid to criticise religious hatred when it’s practised by certain religions, but there you go. He makes good points.

The irrational reaction of the religious to any talk of euthanasia is usually knee-jerk. There will be abuses, they say. Well, of course there will be abuses, just as there are abuses of all kinds of laws.

It’s up to legislators to find ways to stop abuses, and – working with responsible, freethinking doctors and other healthcare professionals – help people to make informed decisions about their exit from life and then to be able to carry it out safely and with dignity.

I’m always reminded of an excellent dystopian sci-fi movie from 1973 called Soylent Green, in which global warming and overpopulation are on everyone’s mind – much as now.

Sol Roth (Edward G Robinson), an elderly police researcher, decides – for reasons I won’t go into at risk of spoiling it for anyone yet to see it, except to say that, in his case, the choice wasn’t motivated by ageing or incurable illness – to end his life. But he has a wonderful, dedicated government facility to help him to do it.

“There,” says the Wikipedia entry on the film, “he is taken to a comfortable bed, is given a poison-laced beverage, and is shown panoramic views of an unspoiled pristine Earth as he dies.”

And I can vouch for the fact that he is depicted as dying peacefully and with dignity. (And the music he chose, if memory serves, was “Morning” from Peer Gynt – bit of a cliché, but kinda nice.)

It’s nonetheless a touching scene, and shows how things could be if only the cling-to-life-at-all-costs-because-God-says-so brigade would just clam up, or those in authority would stop listening to them.

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