The right to die

First published on Brand Republic - 21 June 2011

Undoubtedly the most thought-provoking and much discussed media event last week was Sir Terry Pratchett’s BBC documentary ‘Choosing to Die’.

In 1978, a friend of mine called Roger broke his neck in a motor racing accident at Brands Hatch. In those less enlightened days, a race-track marshal rushed to the scene of the accident and yanked Roger’s helmet off, severing his spinal column and condemning him to life as a tetraplegic (paralysed from the neck down). 

Every week, I went to see him at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Once he realised the finality of his condition, we discussed whether his life would be worth living.

In those days, the form was for an able-bodied person such as me to somehow get hold of a cyanide pill, then place it on the tetraplegic’s tongue and leave the room – the theory being that, as he would be alone when he swallowed the pill, it would have been his decision to end his life.

As he couldn’t move any other part of his body, how else could he kill himself?

This issue was dramatised in the stage play ‘Whose Life is It Anyway’ by Brian Clark.

By some creepy coincidence, it was being performed in the West End at around the same time as Roger’s accident. I watched the brilliant Tom Conti in the lead role.

Sir Terry Pratchett’s programme brought back all the issues I try not to think of.

For those who missed it, it showed the voluntary, dignified death of motor neurone disease sufferer Peter Smedley at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland.

By the way, if you want this post to have more relevance at all to our industry, then I do think that ‘Dignitas’ is a brilliant brand name – because, it seems to me, ‘dignity’ gets right to the heart of this issue.

Also last week, a lady called Helen Cowie from Glasgow called BBC Radio Scotland.

She admitted she had helped her son Robert kill himself at Dignitas after he too was paralysed from the neck down. Robert chose to die to the Oasis song Listen Up.

The police are looking into the circumstances of this death.

In the UK, Mrs Cowie has broken the law.

‘I would rather have been able to do it in this country’ said the grief-stricken mother.

My own sympathies are with her.

However, as Dr James Le Fanu said in the Telegraph:

‘It is only sensible to keep in mind the contrary arguments.

Ninety-year-old Margaret White articulated the first in a recent letter to a newspaper, observing that while she was more than happy living in her nursing home with no wish to die, “were voluntary euthanasia to be legalised I would feel it my duty to ask for it as I now have 19 descendants who need my legacy”.

Then there is the invidious position for severely physically disabled people; in a recent survey of those afflicted with cerebral palsy, nearly three quarters were concerned that any changes in the law in favour of assisted dying would create pressure to end their lives prematurely.

For these and others, the flip side to the human right to assisted dying might too readily become an oppressive social obligation.’

For once, there is nothing any research, any sophisticated strategic planning or any brilliant creative can do to find and define a clear – and right – answer.

There are, it seems to me, no right and no wrong answers.

But should it be a matter for the law?

Is it the Role of Government to deny you the right to kill yourself?

All I can tell you is that if you are at all interested in the human condition and in humanity, at the extreme of its emotional and rational intelligence, then:

– catch the Sir Terry Pratchett programme (‘Choosing to Die’)

– watch the film ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway’ (with Richard Dreyfus in the lead role)

– and read ‘Still Me’ by Christopher Reeve (whose riding accident injured him to the same extent as someone who was hanged at the gallows in less human days)

By the way, over 30 years after his accident, Roger still lives in a Cheshire Home.

He paints with his mouth. How creatively brave is that?

Let me know if you would like to buy one of his paintings. Better still, go and see him in the Tunbridge Wells Seven Springs Cheshire Home and choose from his portfolio.

I have one of his paintings framed in the hall of my house.

Talk about a reality check.

I cannot begin to understand the thoughts and emotions Roger has had to live with.

And, finally, next time you want to shout at a work colleague (or your computer), just be grateful that this is not all you can do.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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