I agree: the BBC favours ‘the right to die’. But watch out. That’s a phrase with a sinister history

Terry Pratchett stands outside the Houses of Parliament (Lewis Whyld/PA Wire)

My colleague, Francis Phillips, is of course right: there is what amounts to a BBC campaign for what is euphemistically called “assisted dying”. On Monday this week, the BBC ran a programme which featured Sir Terry Pratchet, the well-known “fantasy” author and campaigner for assisted suicide, watching the physician-assisted death of Peter Smedley, badly afflicted by Motor Neurone Disease, who had been accompanied by his wife to Dignitas, the Swiss assisted suicide clinic (you can watch it here).

It was almost as though Terry Pratchett was more important than the dead man: and in a way that was true. The programme was even called Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. It all looked suspiciously as though this was all part of Sir Terry’s ongoing campaign for assisted suicide. There were, of course, many accusations that the BBC seemed to be running a pro-euthanasia campaign. A spokesman for the anti-euthanasia organisation Care Not Killing (CNK) commented that

This is yet another blatant example of the BBC playing the role of cheerleader in the vigorous campaign being staged by the pro-euthanasia lobby to legalise assisted suicide in Britain.

Having failed spectacularly in the House of Lords twice since 2006 to convince legislators that legalising assisted suicide is safe, and finding themselves blocked repeatedly by the medical profession’s professional bodies, Dignity in Dying (DID – formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) is now using celebrity endorsement and media portrayal of suicide in order to soften up public opinion ahead of a new drive to change the law later this year.”

By putting their extensive public resources behind this campaign and by giving Terry Pratchett, who is both a patron of DID and key funder of the controversial Falconer Commission, a platform to propagate his views, the BBC is actively fuelling this move to impose assisted suicide on this country and runs the risk of pushing vulnerable people over the edge into taking their lives. It is also flouting both its own guidelines on suicide portrayal and impartiality.

Well, the BBC’s answer to that was to say that it had followed up the programme with a Newsnight programme in which a “balanced” discussion of the issue took place. But balanced though that programme undoubtedly was (you can watch it here), that still left the overall balance heavily on Sir Terry’s side of the scales. And what with last year’s BBC Dimbleby lecture (Sir Terry – on Euthanasia) and lots of articles either supporting Sir Terry or actually by him, there’s no doubt that the BBC has put considerable wind in his sails.

Sir Terry’s arguments, of course, do reflect the Spirit of the Age—a poll shows, it is claimed, that 73 per cent are convinced by his case. Here he is, explaining his own involvement in this issue in The Guardian recently:

The people who thus far have made the harrowing trip to Dignitas in Switzerland to die seemed to me to be very firm and methodical of purpose, with a clear prima-facie case for wanting their death to be on their own terms. In short, their mind may well be in better balance than the world around them.

I got involved in the debate surrounding “assisted death” by accident, after taking a long and informed look at my future as someone with Alzheimer’s. As a result of my “coming out” about the disease, I now have contacts in medical research industries all over the world, and I have no reason to believe that a “cure” is imminent.

And so I have vowed that rather than let Alzheimer’s take me, I would take it. I would live my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the Brompton Cocktail some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.

This seems to me quite a reasonable and sensible decision for someone with a serious, incurable and debilitating disease to elect for a medically assisted death by appointment.

It’s all, of course, a very reasonable-sounding explanation of what he called in a contribution to the Newsnight discussion his “right to death”. When I heard him use that phrase, however, I shuddered, for it has a sinister history: it recalls vividly the entire reasonableness of the successful campaign in Germany during the 1910s through to the 20s and 30s to convince the medical profession that “assisted dying” or “sterbehilfe” for those with an impaired “quality of life” (to use a modern expression which also has sinister historical overtones) as morally acceptable: a book published 13 years before Hitler took power, The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life, Binding and Hoche’s Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens, together with Jost’s Das Recht auf den Tod (The Right to Death) [remember Sir Terry’s “right to die”?] had a huge influence on the German medical profession and without doubt paved the way for the Nazi euthanasia programme.

These authors were far from being Nazis themselves. Professor Binding was an authority on constitutional law; Dr Hoche was a leading psychiatrist. They made it clear that “sterbehilfe” had to be voluntary. But we know what happened then. What happened was that the Nazis didn’t justify “sterbehilfe” for those they decided were unfit to live by declaring its basis in Nazi ideology: what they did instead was to use precisely the language of reason and compassion that underlay the arguments that had so influenced the medical profession that they were in no intellectual condition to resist the Nazi programme on moral grounds.

Nazi propaganda films portrayed euthanasia as essentially compassionate. In I Accuse! (Ich klage an!) (which I have seen: it’s very well made, and would actually be deeply moving if one didn’t know where it had come from) a woman with multiple sclerosis, a musician who is losing the power to play her instrument (the cello: that somehow makes it more poignant) asks her husband to give her a merciful death. He gives her a lethal injection of morphine while peaceful music is played on the piano in a neighbouring room (remember Sir Terry’s plan to put Thomas Tallis on his iPod?). He is tried for murder: at his trial he argues that this was not murder, since his motives were wholly compassionate. He is, of course, acquitted: and the bourgeois moralists are routed.

Well, you may say, that couldn’t happen again: we’re not going to become Nazis, are we? Probably not: but all kinds of developments could take place: how certain are you that over the next hundred years the rights of the economically unproductive to the exceptionally expensive medical care they now increasingly need will not be first eroded then withdrawn, and then replaced by involuntary euthanasia (a development it has been claimed is already taking place in Holland)—all in the name of compassion? Are you certain that couldn’t happen?

Really certain?