The acclaimed author has relaunched the euthanasia debate with a recent BBC lecture.
Among all the mysteries of neurology, there’s an old argument that an active brain is the best defence in protecting oneself from diseases of the mind. However, when bestselling author, Sir Terry Pratchett, was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease in December 2007, this belief was certainly challenged. As renowned author of the Discworld series, Pratchett’s imagination is what has made him so successful. A year after his diagnosis, Pratchett received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Trinity College Dublin–significant, not least due to the fact that it was the first that he had been awarded by a university founded before the 20th century.
Pratchett’s involvement with the issues of euthanasia fully began in an article published in mid 2009, sparking widespread discussion. He said that he wished to commit “assisted suicide” (though he prefers the term “assisted death”) before the Alzheimer’s disease progresses to a critical point. This statement triggered an international debate on euthanasia.
Last week, Terry Prachett had the honour of being the first novelist to give the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, which he entitled “shaking hands with death”. In it he explored with striking humility and a subtle humour how modern society needs to redefine how it deals with death. Pratchett made the case for euthanasia tribunals which are “some kind of strictly non-aggressive tribunal that would establish the facts of the case well before the assisted death takes place”. These tribunals have been given the label “death panels” by those who find the idea morally repugnant.
In this debate, opponents of assisted death always argue that man should not “play God”. Terry Pratchett says, “the problem with the God argument is that it only works if you believe in God”. His response effectively captures the gulf that exists between the opposing camps, and the prospect of moving forward with the issue seems remote. However, Pratchett’s view is supported by two recent UK polls (one BBC Panorama and one YouGov survey) in which over 70% of respondents believed that a change in the law was necessary, in order to allow some form of euthanasia.
Pratchett says, “If I knew that I could die at anytime I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice”. It is on this poignant note he ended the lecture, and we should take note. Pratchett has used his personal plight and public profile usefully, enabling a discussion that we all need to have.