If you didn’t see the lecture on Tuesday evening by Sir Terry Pratchett, the best-selling fantasy novelist, on assisted dying, I strongly recommend it. Pratchett was diaognosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s two years ago, and has since done a lot to increase our awareness of Alzheimer’s and our reactions to it. The lecture was watched by over 2 million people in the UK, and came just after a poll that showed four out of five British people support assisted dying for the terminally ill. You can read a transcript here.
Pratchett says we should be able to “shake hands with death”, to leave life on our own terms, rather than spending months and years in “death’s waiting room”, in a twilight state where you are not really there, but also not allowed to pass on. We should be able to choose how we want to die. He said:
I vowed 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…My life. My death. My choice.
The idea of choosing one’s death, of dying on one’s own terms, with dignity and autonomy (and perhaps some assistance), is very Stoic. Seneca once wrote: ‘Just as I choose a ship to sail in, or a house to live, so I choose a death for my passage from life’.
Medieval Christianity, however, erected a whole moral edifice against the Stoic tolerance of suicide and assisted dying – indeed, the word ‘suicide’ was coined by a 12th century monk in a tract written against Seneca.
The debate between the right to die camp and the sacredness of life camp is still, in some respects, a debate between Stoicism and Medieval Christianity.
Anyway, here is the first section of Pratchett’s speech, the rest is also on YouTube: