Dignity in death

June 17, 2011, 11:20 PM GMT+0

Nearly seven out of ten British people believe that the law should be changed to allow people with incurable diseases the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, our poll has discovered. Additionally, more than half say that if they had a terminal disease for which there is no possible cure they would personally consider the option of assisted suicide, travelling abroad if necessary.

This week BBC2 showed a documentary called ‘Choosing to Die’ in which Sir Terry Pratchett, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, considered how he might choose to end his life. Prior to its showing, seven in ten people concluded that the BBC were right to show the film.

  • 69% of people think the law should be changed to allow assisted suicide in the case of people with incurable diseases
  • Just 18% think the law should remain as it is
  • More than half of people (52%) would personally consider the option of assisted suicide if they had an incurable disease, travelling abroad if necessary
  • While one in five (20%) would not consider assisted suicide
  • Prior to its showing on BBC 2, 70% of people agreed that the channel was right to show a documentary in which Alzheimer’s sufferer Sir Terry Pratchett considers how he might choose to end his life
  • Just 15% of people thought the documentary, which contains footage of a man with a terminal disease undergoing an assisted suicide in a clinic in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, should not have been shown

The showing of ‘Choosing to Die’ has sparked controversy among critics, some of whom have labelled the film on assisted suicide ‘biased’. Supporters of Care Not Killing, an organisation which promotes palliative care and opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide, called the documentary ‘pro-assisted suicide propaganda loosely dressed up as a documentary, while Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, stated he wanted to see ‘much more emphasis put on supporting people in living, than assisting them in dying.’

The BBC has denied that the programme was biased. ‘It is giving people the chance to make their own minds up on the issue,’ a spokeswoman said, ‘the aim of the programme was to create discussion and this is clearly a subject that resonates.’

In response to our results, Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said: ‘I agree with the majority of the public who believe that it was right for the documentary to be aired. While the programme was at times difficult to watch, it showed the reality that many dying people and their loved ones face at the end of their lives in this country. We need to have a sensible debate on assisted dying, and Choosing to Die will play an important part in that debate.’

On the BBC’s Newsnight, Sir Terry Pratchett confirmed his position, stating, ‘I believe it should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.’

Wootton continued, ‘The problem is clear; it is now time for decision-makers to engage with how we ensure that all people can have what they consider to be a good death.’