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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Last night, British public service TV (BBC2) broadcast a show presented by Terry Pratchett – the fantasy author – about assisted suicide. It showed what happened to a wealthy seventy-one year old man, who had motor neurone disease, and chose to buy the services of the Swiss-German ‘Dignitas’ organisation to arrange his death.

Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s disease, and says he’d choose death rather than lose his mental and physical faculties. After the show he said he still wants to see that choice made available in the UK, despite appearing distressed on the show, when he knew that a ‘young’ man of forty two, suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, was exercising his choice in another room at Dignitas’ premises near Zurich.

I’ve always agreed with my wife that I’d rather be dead than become a ‘burden’ to anyone through mental incapacity – I reserve any decision about physical pain and debility until that happens. I certainly don’t want the ‘slow and painful death’ they advertise on the backs of cigarette packs. She says that she feels the same impulses.

My mother-in-law arranged for her husband and, a year or so later, herself, to receive overdoses of opiates when she judged first that he had lost his ‘mind’, and latterly that she was on the verge of physical dependency. She gathered her children around her (She lived outside the UK, and they all lived elsewhere around Europe) and arranged to have her own overdose. Despite her physical frailty, it took several attempts and a matter of days before she achieved the end she wanted. It seems that the human body is addicted to life even more firmly than it can be to other things.

Each of her children would gladly have cared for her continually until her life reached a natural end, but they were used to their mother having her ‘own way’. She had spent her adult life ‘in control’; not only of herself, but also of anybody who came within her sphere of influence. Many people willingly submitted to her rather imperious dominance. She did everything with grace and dignity, and enjoyed hosting social occasions, which she did with considerable style. Much as she achieved her own death. Her many friends – most of whom were ‘high achievers’ and internationally known amongst the ‘privileged’ – mourned her in the full knowledge that she had died as she had lived; decorously and with faultless dignity.

She died in a country in which assisted suicide isn’t legally sanctioned, although Switzerland wasn’t inaccessible to her. Citizens of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg all have freedom under the law to choose an assisted death, but those countries don’t offer the option to subjects of other countries. That’s a little ungracious of the Belgians and the Dutch, given the large number of foreigners who died in both countries during the World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Nor did she pay a fee for the service; her doctor was working within the socialised medical provisions of the European Union.

I’d like to make it absolutely clear: I’m not one of those package-bought hippies who believes that ‘if it’s natural, it must be OK’ – deadly nightshade, digitalis and hemlock are all perfectly natural, but they make lousy tea. But there are some things over which it is both unnatural and foolish for human beings, as natural animals themselves, to seek complete control. Just think how hard it is for some men to control premature ejaculation.

Whilst I’m on the subject of the beginning, rather than the end of life, I reckon interfering with evolution by genetically engineering designer babies is an example of unnatural folishness. Mess with the way that genes operate, and things we do not understand are likely to happen, leading to us paying a price for overstepping our competence.

This is not the old familiar ‘god’ diatribe. I have no fond delusions about some benign creator of universes of pattern and order that we shall eventually understand and control, but I think it’s even more delusory to fantasise that humanity is the undoubted heir to all the ‘secrets’ of ‘life, the universe and everything’. When we die, we rot, so far as I’m concerned, and notions of ‘dignity in death’ are just a pompous symptom of the self-aggrandisement which seems to typify the silly behaviour of the animals we are.

We speak of ‘nobility’, of glory and admiration of courage, of martyrdom, of qualities we assert are uniquely human, the product of our reflective and self-aware intellect. We like to see ourselves as the most important part of everything. The owners.

If there is one sure product of our humanity, it is our capacity to fool each other and to be fooled in return. Flattery, manipulation of greedy desires and immediate short-term appetites plus a whole bunch of other methods to trick our perceptions, constantly persuade us to take what we can get, and keep what we have, and easily divert us from any focus upon our ‘being’. We define ourselves by acquiring trappings that others can see.

Watching the show, what I was surprised to feel, seeing a man buying his fully packaged, Dignitas-branded suicide, was that we have now commoditised death. The man clearly had the wealth to accumulate all the enviable status symbols; the sports car, the wine cellar, even the trophy wife who only half-jokingly described his car as an object, not for driving, but for ‘pulling women’. Perhaps the man had earned all of this. He certainly had a ‘lifestyle’. And he was finally able to buy a ‘deathstyle’.

Maybe ‘deathstyle marketing’ could be a growth opportunity. Some folks want dignity, but others might opt for some different style. Dignitas’ premises looked a little too much like an office on an industrial park. Maybe they could have had a proper Swiss Chalet, with blonde Swiss milkmaids and those nice cows with bells round their necks? Maybe they could even deliver the lethal dose in a barrel worn by a Saint Bernard dog? And the customer could choose a selected scene from ‘The Sound of Music’ to play out their last conscious moments.

The possibilities are endless. Funerals have become quite entertaining in recent years, and it’s quite possible that, with the ability to choose the moment of death, some folks could host their own funeral, hear their friends give eulogies and then finish the occasion off by hopping into the box before swigging down the poisoned chalice.

And it need not be downbeat and all about people being past their sell-by date. Think of all the teenagers who get sick of living. Quite a lot of them opt for the ‘do-it-yourself’ route, and nobody else makes anything out of it at all. Maybe there’s room for a special service just for the younger market. You could have a slogan like; “We put the youth into euthanasia.”

Once the trend gets established it could get to be quite fashionable. I’m sure that with the right promotion you could soon have loads of people just dying to go. It needn’t be for avoiding pain or the indignity of dependency. You could choose suicide because you weren’t really getting much out of life. Maybe because you can’t get a job, and you haven’t any hope of better prospects. Or you are bored. Whatever.

Given the problems of global overpopulation, governments might offer welfare assistance to people who couldn’t afford the fees. Some people might even decide to do it for fame and glory, a bit like the people who joined up to go off to Belgium in 1914-18. I bet they could make a really good reality TV show, with internet spinoffs, providing people could make the death bit interesting enough. Death has always been a popular human obsession, second only to sex, for a lot of people, and everybody knows how well sex sells. You might even combine the two.

And once deathstyle choices become popular, it wouldn’t be so hard for governments to persuade people who are economically unviable, like old people, and people with disabilities, people who are morbidly obese and so-on to consider a good death as a much better consumer choice than a miserable life. Some people might even be able to pass on a bonus to friends or family, by selling healthy organs for transplants, or by being reprocessed for food.

Of course, if it does turn out that there is some kind of ‘post-death’ experience, it could be a little embarrassing turning up at whatever ‘pearly gates’ venue exists only to be told that you aren’t expected, and can’t just turn up uninvited. From premature ejaculation to premature capitulation.