Peter does not want to hang around. After a final question the small plastic cup is handed to him. He regards it for one, no more than two seconds before drinking it down. He leaves no time for doubt to gain a foothold. Sitting back on the sofa he has time to shake hands with Terry Pratchett, time to thank everyone there for doing a “first class” job. Then with his wife beside him, holding his hand, he begins to die.
This is what Dignitas looks like, as shown in Terry Pratchett’s remarkable documentary on Choosing to Die. A place that had existed somewhat hazily in my imagination for a long time; a place I might look into further down the line, a place of last resort. But to see it, that unassuming blue house and what goes on inside, is jarring and difficult. What on earth would I be thinking if I saw that blue myself, my steadying hand on the blue wall as I stumbled towards the front door? It’s suddenly much more real now.
Inside it is modern, simple, relatively sparse but not unwelcoming. There are beds (not too institutional looking) or sofas if preferred. The process starts round a kitchen table and lots of tea is offered in cheerful-looking cups. I’m not clear if there is a kitchen there too and whether there is the option of a last meal. I’m not sure really if you are encouraged to linger for such things, whether there are time slots you have to keep to. Though I’m not sure if people would want to linger anyway – it would not get any easier. You have probably made up your mind by then. Peter had.
But this is perhaps the tragedy of Terry Pratchett’s film – the law as it currently stands in the UK prevents people with such convictions lingering on in life in the first place. Both Peter (Motor Neurone Disease but still able to get around more or less effectively with sticks) and Andrew (a forty-something manual wheelchair-using man with not-yet-totally-appalling-looking MS) looked to be checking out a bit earlier than perhaps they might really have wanted. But they felt they had to get out while they still could, perhaps to minimise the extent to which loved ones might be judged to be assisting them. This is what bothers Pratchett the most, in the knowledge that Alzheimer’s will probably force him to make that journey a little early too.
Having watched the film I remain of the view that people should have the choice to end their lives this way. Above all for me it feels like an equality issue – able-bodied people will always have the option to take their own lives (in ways which can be much more damaging to those around them). There are enough things disabled or severely ill people can not do; it seems odd to insist that this choices open to others are denied to them.
But while I remain of the view that this is right, the film demonstrates the gravity of the decision – something I am likely to be less flippant about in future. Watching Peter’s death it is clear that when the drugs kick in it is not an altogether pain or fear free process. His gasp for water, a final request which is denied, is hard to get out of your mind.
The shock of that moment aside, the Dignitas process seems a long way from the days of assisted suicide pioneer Jack Kervorkian and his Mercitron.
Dr. Kervorkian died earlier this month. Naturally as it turns out, perhaps to heckles of “Judas” from the pro-assisted suicide campaigners at the back.