Terry Pratchett and needless suffering

I can’t prove it but it wouldn’t surprise me if the e-mail and phones at the NPR ombudsman’s office are busy today, following this morning’s Morning Edition interview with Terry Pratchett. The writer is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and would like the option of taking his own life when the time is right.

He says he doesn’t use the word “suicide.”

“I prefer not to use the word ‘suicide’ because suicide is an irrational thing whereas I think that for some people asking for an assisted death is a very rational thing,”

Is he talking about people with a mental illness who kill themselves? A later portion of the interview reveals that he, in fact, is. And it raises the question of whether people dying of a physical illness should have an option denied those with a mental illness.

He says he believes it’s acceptable to have an assisted death if you’re suffering from a terminal disease, but not if you’re depressed.

“I’ve often felt depressed, everyone feels depressed,” he says.

That’s a surprising statement coming from a learned man. Sure, there is depression in the course of a day or a week, and there is depression that is part of a neurological disorder. The two are not the same.

I certainly don’t advocate the taking of one’s own life, but the assertion that “needless suffering” is cause to be allowed to end one’s own life, invites a debate on what constitutes “needless suffering” and who is morally and legally entitled to escape it.

Unfortunately, NPR chose not to explore that question.

  • There are many issues in our society that come in degrees. Issues of health, health care and health care decisions are certainly good examples of where decisions come in varying degrees. A 20 year-old with a 90% chance of recovery from a cancer we might have a problem with allowing them to have an assisted suicide, but a 80 year-old with a 10% chance seems more reasonable.

    Perhaps a place to start with assisted suicide is an age level and a set of diagnoses. As long as two doctors agree the person is of sound mind to make the decision, then it is that person’s decision. At least to me that minority set of people seems reasonable, and would be to the most people. From there, it would be a matter of degree.

  • Bose in St. Peter

    “I’ve often felt depressed, everyone feels depressed,” he says.

    I lost my partner/fiance to suicide a decade ago. His 46-year life was complicated, but one of the constants was severe depression which too often resisted all treatment. The roller coaster of side effects and feeling used like a guinea pig while in the search for an effective mix of drugs boggled my mind.

    One of the enduring images for me was Dale waking suddenly at 3am to find himself sobbing, wracked with despair, for no obvious reason.

    While it may be anecdotally true that most folks have felt depressed, few of us have known its extremes.

  • Jesse

    Unfortunately, NPR chose not to explore that question.

    Come on, Bob. You know NPR as well as MPR have had these discussions many times and will continue to have them. And in a more thoughtful way than a lot of news media. This piece was focusing on an individual and his decision to push for a change in policy. In this story, a discussion on “needless suffering” would have been far too brief to be enlightening and tangential at best.

  • Jamie

    I’m sorry to hear about your partner, Bose. I hope you have found some peace.