Do people have the right to choose when and how they die?
When I was younger, I used to joke that suicide shouldn't be illegal "because what can they do to you if you fail"? I learned later that the reasoning for this was so emergency services personnel could break into a private residence to rescue someone who had attempted suicide (because they would be 'preventing a crime'). But as I've gotten older, I've given this question a lot more consideration. For most of my life, I've been more concerned with suicide prevention. I've worked as a volunteer with a lot of at-risk communities, so this makes sense. Of course I want to prevent the tragic loss of life when it comes to depression and substance abuse. But what about suicide for those who are facing a terminal or painful illness?
Which brings me to Terry Pratchett.
You might know him as the author of Discworld. He is one of my favorite people. His sense of humor is incredibly gentle and poignant, and I've adored his writing since I was very young. On March 12th, 2015, Terry Pratchett died in his home. He'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, an incurable degenerative brain disorder. And while his death was of natural causes, for a long time he had been considering assisted suicide.
Not only did he consider assisted suicide, but he documented the journey he took to make his decision.
"What you are about to watch may not be easy, but I consider it important."
The documentary followed the lives of others who had chosen assisted suicide. I recommend the full documentary (available here). I don't recommend it lightly. Over the course of the documentary, Pratchett grew to know a man with a terminal illness, and together they discussed the decision he and his wife made: to end his life before it progressed to an unbearable degree. After the decision was made, Pratchett joined him for his last moments. He died comfortably, with his loved ones.
"In fact, by now, I have reached the conclusion that a person may make a decision to die because the balance of their mind is level, realistic, pragmatic, stoic and sharp. And that is why I dislike the term "assisted suicide" applied to the carefully thought-out and weighed-up process of having one's life ended by gentle medical means."
It's the one thing we all have in common, the one thing that is an absolute. And while it seems like a great unknown, we do have the choice to determine how it occurs. While sometimes nature or circumstance takes this choice away, it is one that we have. Personally, I'm not clear myself on when this choice is one that should be considered. As I mentioned, I've volunteered with organizations that actively try to prevent suicide. However, I also feel that when it comes to the bodies of others, the choice should never be mine.