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I agree: the BBC favours ‘the right to die’. But watch out. That’s a phrase with a sinister history

The German medical profession accepted ‘assisted dying’ for compassionate reasons in the 1920s. Then came the 1930s

By on Thursday, 16 June 2011

Terry Pratchett stands outside the Houses of Parliament (Lewis Whyld/PA Wire)

Terry Pratchett stands outside the Houses of Parliament (Lewis Whyld/PA Wire)

My colleague, Francis Phillips, is of course right: there is what amounts to a BBC campaign for what is euphemistically called “assisted dying”. On Monday this week, the BBC ran a programme which featured Sir Terry Pratchet, the well-known “fantasy” author and campaigner for assisted suicide, watching the physician-assisted death of Peter Smedley, badly afflicted by Motor Neurone Disease, who had been accompanied by his wife to Dignitas, the Swiss assisted suicide clinic (you can watch it here).

It was almost as though Terry Pratchett was more important than the dead man: and in a way that was true. The programme was even called Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. It all looked suspiciously as though this was all part of Sir Terry’s ongoing campaign for assisted suicide. There were, of course, many accusations that the BBC seemed to be running a pro-euthanasia campaign. A spokesman for the anti-euthanasia organisation Care Not Killing (CNK) commented that

This is yet another blatant example of the BBC playing the role of cheerleader in the vigorous campaign being staged by the pro-euthanasia lobby to legalise assisted suicide in Britain.

Having failed spectacularly in the House of Lords twice since 2006 to convince legislators that legalising assisted suicide is safe, and finding themselves blocked repeatedly by the medical profession’s professional bodies, Dignity in Dying (DID – formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) is now using celebrity endorsement and media portrayal of suicide in order to soften up public opinion ahead of a new drive to change the law later this year.”

By putting their extensive public resources behind this campaign and by giving Terry Pratchett, who is both a patron of DID and key funder of the controversial Falconer Commission, a platform to propagate his views, the BBC is actively fuelling this move to impose assisted suicide on this country and runs the risk of pushing vulnerable people over the edge into taking their lives. It is also flouting both its own guidelines on suicide portrayal and impartiality.

Well, the BBC’s answer to that was to say that it had followed up the programme with a Newsnight programme in which a “balanced” discussion of the issue took place. But balanced though that programme undoubtedly was (you can watch it here), that still left the overall balance heavily on Sir Terry’s side of the scales. And what with last year’s BBC Dimbleby lecture (Sir Terry – on Euthanasia) and lots of articles either supporting Sir Terry or actually by him, there’s no doubt that the BBC has put considerable wind in his sails.

Sir Terry’s arguments, of course, do reflect the Spirit of the Age—a poll shows, it is claimed, that 73 per cent are convinced by his case. Here he is, explaining his own involvement in this issue in The Guardian recently:

The people who thus far have made the harrowing trip to Dignitas in Switzerland to die seemed to me to be very firm and methodical of purpose, with a clear prima-facie case for wanting their death to be on their own terms. In short, their mind may well be in better balance than the world around them.

I got involved in the debate surrounding “assisted death” by accident, after taking a long and informed look at my future as someone with Alzheimer’s. As a result of my “coming out” about the disease, I now have contacts in medical research industries all over the world, and I have no reason to believe that a “cure” is imminent.

And so I have vowed that rather than let Alzheimer’s take me, I would take it. I would live my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the Brompton Cocktail some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.

This seems to me quite a reasonable and sensible decision for someone with a serious, incurable and debilitating disease to elect for a medically assisted death by appointment.

It’s all, of course, a very reasonable-sounding explanation of what he called in a contribution to the Newsnight discussion his “right to death”. When I heard him use that phrase, however, I shuddered, for it has a sinister history: it recalls vividly the entire reasonableness of the successful campaign in Germany during the 1910s through to the 20s and 30s to convince the medical profession that “assisted dying” or “sterbehilfe” for those with an impaired “quality of life” (to use a modern expression which also has sinister historical overtones) as morally acceptable: a book published 13 years before Hitler took power, The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life, Binding and Hoche’s Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens, together with Jost’s Das Recht auf den Tod (The Right to Death) [remember Sir Terry’s “right to die"?] had a huge influence on the German medical profession and without doubt paved the way for the Nazi euthanasia programme.

These authors were far from being Nazis themselves. Professor Binding was an authority on constitutional law; Dr Hoche was a leading psychiatrist. They made it clear that “sterbehilfe” had to be voluntary. But we know what happened then. What happened was that the Nazis didn’t justify “sterbehilfe” for those they decided were unfit to live by declaring its basis in Nazi ideology: what they did instead was to use precisely the language of reason and compassion that underlay the arguments that had so influenced the medical profession that they were in no intellectual condition to resist the Nazi programme on moral grounds.

Nazi propaganda films portrayed euthanasia as essentially compassionate. In I Accuse! (Ich klage an!) (which I have seen: it’s very well made, and would actually be deeply moving if one didn’t know where it had come from) a woman with multiple sclerosis, a musician who is losing the power to play her instrument (the cello: that somehow makes it more poignant) asks her husband to give her a merciful death. He gives her a lethal injection of morphine while peaceful music is played on the piano in a neighbouring room (remember Sir Terry’s plan to put Thomas Tallis on his iPod?). He is tried for murder: at his trial he argues that this was not murder, since his motives were wholly compassionate. He is, of course, acquitted: and the bourgeois moralists are routed.

Well, you may say, that couldn’t happen again: we’re not going to become Nazis, are we? Probably not: but all kinds of developments could take place: how certain are you that over the next hundred years the rights of the economically unproductive to the exceptionally expensive medical care they now increasingly need will not be first eroded then withdrawn, and then replaced by involuntary euthanasia (a development it has been claimed is already taking place in Holland)—all in the name of compassion? Are you certain that couldn’t happen?

Really certain?

  • Chris

    Whilst I feel deep and genuine sympathy and compassion for those with serious and terminal illnesses who are suffering great pain and who know they are going to suffer increasingly as the illness progresses (and I cannot begin to imagine what this must be like), this documentary has left a deep impression on me. Not an impression of being swayed by their views on assisted dying in the slightest but simply a very depressed feeling at the the hopelessness and self-centredness of the entire situation. I have now watched the part where Peter Smedley takes his own life several times over to try and take it in. Just look at everyone’s faces as this unfolds. It is very hard to discern any real love present in those moments. Only a deception which they (perhaps very genuinely) believe is love. Often when people die, friends and relatives share those last moments with precious words. But there was silence. Awkwardness. It is a very dark few minutes indeed. An sub-conscious recognition that something was deeply wrong about the situation perhaps. And the poor man cries out for water just before he loses consciousness – which is denied – was this perhaps a cry of help and regret? And as soon as Peter is out the way, the atention goes to hjow terry Pratchett is feeling. It was all about him in the same way that for Peter and the other younger man, it was all about themselves. Love and concern for the other – a cenral tenet of our faith – was absent all the way through. Obviously lack of faith in God as the author of life and the only one with the right to take life away is a fundamental issue in all of this – there’s just no getting away from that. Another issue is lack of any kind of recognition that suffering has any value, that it doesn’t deny someone of their true dignity, that it puts others into a situation where they are asked to love, to care, to reinforce that person’s dignity – unconditionally. Peter Smedley’s wife was utterly obedient to him until the end – this in her mind presumably was a sign of faithful love. But wouldn’t true love have been to defend his true dignity and oppose his decision? I felt their parting embrace was quite cold, very ‘stiff upper lip’, as if he was popping out for the evening.  To what extent was he thinking of her as he made his choices? Perhaps a sign of more general sense of deep unhappiness in his life. How extremely sad. I know people with much more progressive stages of illness than him who are full of life and happy. And the perceived lack of culpability on the part of the assistant who handed over poison (or as the depeption continued to unfurl, the ‘medicament’!). This all goes to show how desperately we need to experience life in its fullness, whatever ills might befall us. Let’s pray earnestly for Peter Smedley and the others. 

  • Julian

    Another abuse of the language by the perverts and murderers who dominate our political class. To say one wants “the right to die” is like saying one wants “the right to be conceived”. Absent a stunning development, the Government will struggle to deprive you of the right to die, since it’s a “right” you will exercise necessarily as part of the package of being a human individual. We need to stop giving these mind programmers easy victories by adopting their euphemisms. What they want is the right to kill: themselves, others (with their consent), others (without their consent).

  • penny

    Our society is full of “rights” and seems to have no sense of history.  The abortion act came in under the cloak of addressing a “wrong”; that women opting for backstreet abortions were putting their lives at risk.  No-one wishes that kind of death of anyone, and so the abortion act passed.  And we see how it has progressed, from being there to protect the lives of vulnerable women, it has become an industry, totally accepted as a form of contraception.  And this is how it will proceed if an assisted suicide act is passed; at first, the few who are so vociferous in wanting it will have their apparantly piteous needs met; give it 30 years and it will be the norm to kill anyone judged to be living a non-productive life.  Yes, the norm.  The devil always cloaks his attacks on life in a pleasing veneer; from the apple in the garden onwards.  The staus quo ensures that all such deaths are investigated, thus preventing abuse while being very soft on those acting out of “mercy”; why would anyone want this safeguard taken away for the many, just to suit their own desires for a public seal of approval on their actions?

  • GabrielAustin

    “But all kinds of developments could take place: how certain
    are you that over the next hundred years the rights of the economically
    unproductive to the exceptionally expensive medical care they now
    increasingly need will not be first eroded then withdrawn, and then
    replaced by involuntary euthanasia (a development it has been
    claimed is already taking place in Holland)—all in the name of
    compassion? Are you certain that couldn’t happen?Really certain?”.

    And there’s the crux. Mrs. Pelosi in the U.S. has already lamented the high cost of keeping grandma alive.

  • Jeannine

    “…those with serious and terminal illnesses who are suffering great pain and who know they are going to suffer increasingly as the illness progresses…”

    There is no need for people who are struck with a painful debilitating disease to suffer so. There is a growing sub-specialty in the health field called palliative care where teams of doctors, nurses, therapists, chaplains, ets… focus on relieving pain, some symptoms and stress for patients so their quality of life improves tremendously even as they approach death. You have no idea how ignorant the members of the rest of of the health field are! I have friends whose loved ones have died from cancer. These patients were able to die a peaceful, natural death in a loving environment after receiving various levels of palliative care that improved their quality of life. (I believe the concept of hospice would be categorized under palliative care.) There really is no need for assisted suicide.

  • Polycarp7

    At some point after it’s legalization, abortion stopped being a “right” and became a duty. Anyone who thinks that legization of suicide will become anything other than a duty is either naive, very stupid, or very cunning.

  • Ratbag

    Spot. On.

  • Chris

    Yes, you’re right of course. I’m aware of the important place of palliative care within health and social care and in fact do work to support it. I think I meant to say they fear that they will suffer increasingly. And, interestingly, it was the man who was being cared for in a hospice who had a slight change of heart and made it clear that he was now in less of a rush to exit stage left. 

  • ms catholic state

    There’s no hope for our secular society.  All its ‘values’ are perverted and inverted.  It will be destroyed….from within and without.

  • Tim Tindal-Robertson

    Dr Oddie is to be commended for drawing out the historical comparison with what happened in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Those developments became sinister and evil when they were adopted by the Nazi dictatorship. What we are living through now,  Pope Benedict XVI has said, is a “dictatorship of relativism”. Those who believe that every human life is made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore sacred, from conception until natrual death, must now speak out strongly and clearly to uphold the law against assisted suicide, in order to stop the dictatorship of relativism as promoted by the media and in particular the BBC from imposing on society its own secular and anti-Christian values.

  • DdV

    I commend Stuart Reid’s Charterhouse column, “What would you do?” for the wisest and most compassionate response I have yet seen in the Catholic press or blogosphere.

  • jng

    I remember someone who describes himself as a gay historian rubbing his hands in what might have been glee, towards the end of a TV programme, while claiming that the Theory of Evolution had shaken the foundations of Christianity which, he said, had until recently taught that the world had been created in six days:  with, one assumes, God on a six day week.  In fact, it was the scientific community which was shaken, the Catholic Church having lived with Saint Augustine’s theory of seminal creation since Roman times, and it was Christ himself who explained that to God a day could be a thousand years.  Of, course he could have said a million or a trillion but a thousand was more than enough for First Century fishermen to digest.  The programme was, like many others, blatant anti-Christian propaganda.  The Terry Pratchett programme while, perhaps, more subtle showed no more respect for fact or sense.
    We are all going to die and it will not be pleasant for any of us, not just BBC producers.  Most of the rest of us see it as part of the contract.  One lives, hopefully makes something of the experience, then dies.  The living part is much more pleasant if we live in a society where respect for human life is the underlying principle.  For one thing, I have never found a way of logically justifying any of the rights I and others enjoy without it.  So, one cannot pick and chose when to apply it without risking the entire social structure.  Perhaps I will have Alzheimer’s Disease some day, perhaps not, but no matter how unpleasant my final months are, I hope that I will be able to face them with true dignity.  Certainly this would not include me, having enjoyed the security and comforts of living in a society based on respect for human life, asking one of its members to dump the principle by killing me because I am too conceited to die dependent or too spineless to die in pain.  Surely only followers of a destructive pleasure pain philosophy find any dignity in that.

  • Anonymous

    Quite true. It’s helpful to keep in mind here that what is actually being called for is not the right to die. Anyone can commit suicide — it’s not that hard to do. If you’re as rational and in possession of your faculties as Prachett makes all of these people out to be, then you can probably manage to kill yourself. Plenty of people commit suicide already, so, even accepting that it is a “right,” I don’t see how anyone’s being denied it.

    Like you said, the supposed “right to die” is actually granting the medical profession the authority to kill others. I for one am not comfortable with anyone having such power.

  • Anonymous

    One wonders how many people will be murdered (with or without consent) if euthanasia is legalised here (as seems likely.) Since abortion was legalised 40,000,000 unborn children have been butchered for no good reason in the United States alone. With one form of murder now a fully recognised (right) how long will it be before euthanasia becomes a “human right” too. For anyone who lives in a populated town then look out your window now. Just how many of the people you see do you think will be murdered by “euthanasia” if it is made legal here as abortion was?

  • Nicky

    I think many people have misunderstood assisted dying. I don’t want the law changed so people can be murdered, I would like the law changed so that when my illness becomes so bad that I can longer feed myself, wipe my own backside or do anything for myself and am just existing, I can choose to die peacefully at home, when I choose. Hopefully this won’t be for a long time but I have Multiple Sclerosis and my body is slowly giving up. I don’t want to just exist to please everyone else, I want to go quietly when I feel the time is right. 

  • Aunt Raven

    I agree– you have the right to go naturally, not to be resusitated and not kept alive artificially.  There’s no law against that, now, and you can specify that in a living will.  My husband and I have–however we have specified in ours that  providing food and water are not to be considered “artificial means”, as is increasingly common in hospitals in some of the American States.  To die of starvation or dehydration is a long and extremely painful agony; that’s how poor Terry Schivo died.   

    I am terribly sorry that you have Multiple Sclerosis– I shall pray for you that you do not reach the point that fear or pain cause you to want to take your own life.  

  • Anonymous

    Is it the sign of all failed arguments to resort to the Nazi card? I wouldn’t be surprised.

    Guilt by association is simply lazy arguing, and in the case of your article – cover for a lack of substantive argument to the contrary.

    You, the BBC and Terry Pratchett all fail to make the distinction between assisted dying and euthanasia. The lines have been blurred by persistent discussion in recent years; but I see it as vital that we see them as separate ideas – as they clearly are.

    Euthanasia is suicide under another name, whereas assisted-dying is to help the ALREADY dying to in the most comfortable way they can. Euthanasia has many moral implications, whereas assisted-dying is really a closed book. And very few moral arguments can be levelled against it.

    If anyone disagrees with me, first take a look at the assisted dying that is legal in the state of Oregan, which is what I would advocate. it allows for ‘a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering’

    The decision is taken entirely buy the person in question, and can only occur in the 6 months prior to the expected death of the person in question. If you disregard (for now) the question of safeguarding – what moral arguments can be had against such a system? I can find none.

  • Handbagj

    Yes,
    it is true (but not interesting), that any man can kill himself.  The problem is that suicide is a taboo,
    shameful, act that causes shame and distress. 

         If an old chap, or anyone, is content to
    go, and of sound mind, wouldn’t it be nice if he could announce his intention
    and then take the hemlock.  No medics
    present – their business is to preserve life 
    A very sad occasion, as the death of a person is, but no more sad than
    disease. 

         A ceremony is needed, and the blessing of
    God, and then “…carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man”.  Are we really sure that God still wants us
    to struggle on?  In modern
    conditions?  having sold our homes to
    pay for a grim sanitised profit‑making Old Folks Home?

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