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Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die

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Charlotte Moore Charlotte Moore | 15:48 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

Terry Pratchett during the making of 'Terry Pratchett: Choosing Death

Death on television has always been a controversial issue - as such, it's not something that we'd ever take the decision to show lightly. Not only did we have to work closely with all of our contributors' families to make sure that the issue was handled as sensitively as possible, but we worked closely with our editorial policy team to make sure that all aspects of the documentary were in line with BBC Editorial Policy guidelines.

When we knew that we'd be following Terry Pratchett as he looked at the realities of assisted death, for us it was important that we faithfully documented his personal journey. Terry has often spoken of the fact that he may choose a medically assisted death when his condition progresses, so his priority was to look at what this decision would really mean. What would it feel like to make the final decision to die? What would it feel like to visit Dignitas? What would it be like to be present when the moment of death came?

Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die looks at all of these issues in some detail, but in no way does he wave a one-sided flag for assisted death. Terry meets and is moved by a motor neurone disease sufferer who has chosen to stay in the UK and opted for hospice care; he struggles with the decision of a younger man with multiple sclerosis who has chosen to take his own life; he is particularly moved by Peter's (another motor neurone disease sufferer's) long journey to Dignitas, and finds watching the final stage extremely difficult.

What filming the documentary made clear was how complicated the issue was, and how much this is an important topic of debate. As part of this, on the same night, BBC Two will screen a Newsnight debate that gives all different voices a chance to discuss the issue.

We know that not everyone will feel comfortable watching Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die, but we hope that all would accept that it's important that the BBC tackles the difficult subjects that we're often faced with in life.

Charlotte Moore is Commissioning Editor for documentaries

  • The BBC's Press Release about the programme is on the Press Office web site.
  • The BBC's Editorial Guidelines are on the BBC web site.
  • The picture shows Terry Pratchet during filming for his programme 'Living with Alzheimer's' for BBC Two in February 2009.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Only one comment and that deleted by the moderator? Well it is obvious that comment and complaints are being buried and this uniquely unread blog is merely an attempt to engage people on an emotional level and disengage the public from any discussion based on transcendent moral Truth. As I have already complained to BBC and was directed here I am totally convinced that the BBC is avidly pro-death and are actively campaigning to change public opinion and the law on assisted suicide. Counselling or procuring the suicide of a person is illegal and I would hope that should this program go out those involved, starting with the commisioning editor will be prosecuted.

  • Comment number 3.

    I couldn't disagree more with eyesopen, I consider the subject matter in the public interest and hence important to debate. I suspect the strength of the argument is the issue rather than the BBC taking a stance of being pro-death. I look forward to seeing the program.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am puzzled as to how the BBC can represent this documentary as fair or balanced, given that the presenter is a celebrity who is well-known for campaigning in favour of legalising assisted suicide. To suggest that interviews with dying patients who have not chosen suicide makes it unbiased is naive - including their stories is consistent with the overall argument of the pro-assisted-suicide lobby, which is that 'it should be a free choice to choose an assisted death or not'. The BBC would not ask Tony Blair to present their election night coverage, even if he said 'it's OK, I'll make sure I speak with some Tory people also, so they don't feel left out' - so why, in this very divisive debate, choose a presenter who is on record as favouring and campaigning for one side?

  • Comment number 5.

    No person should be faced with the dreadful decision of whether to take their own life. This should not be a topic for debate because it will encourage the acceptance of assisted suicide, which not only contravines the law, but also goes against the teachings of all major religions. We must respect the sanctity of human life. I strongly object to our license fees being used to promote this debate.

  • Comment number 6.

    Apart from my religious objection to assisted suicide. I have two concerns that people might feel that they are a bearedion and another that they will be pressured into it.

  • Comment number 7.

    People feeling like a burden or feeling pressurised into ending it all for the sake of their family are very real concerns that need to be discussed, but we can't allow people's religious objections to stifle proper debate, and important subjects like this won't go away just because you attempt to ignore them. I'm looking forward to this programme, and am very glad that the BBC have the courage to air the subject.

  • Comment number 8.

    This is a highly intelligent man who has written many books in his lifetime, has been rewarded and commended for such, and who wishes to be remembered by his fans, friends and family as such.

    Growing up watching my great grand mother have alzheimer's has made me think many times on who should have the choice to end life, if anyone should. Her daughter had to look after her for more than 15 years, where she couldn't speak, couldn't feed herself, couldn't even walk to the toilet. If people wish to die with dignity, that should be acceptable. To make it law may be difficult, but the number of assisted suicides that are not being prosecuted shows that people accept this as a sensitive and caring issue. A 100 years ago, a family would ask the doctor around, ask him to "make them comfortable", and if they thought it necessary they would do the right thing.

    Listening to Pratchett's speech last year doesn't make me think he wants to die. He just wants to die on his terms. And we should respect any human beings right to decide how they want to live. The fact Pratchett is talking about this is a good thing, and I can't imagine he would be too one sided, as any empathetic human watching others die will have big questions coming to mind.

    Debate is good. It doesn't mean legislation is going to immediately follow.

  • Comment number 9.

    Matthew Maddock, I couldn't have put it any better myself. I have personally cared for a good friend with advanced Multiple Sclerosis for years, and while she is still very much in control of her faculties, there are no painkillers that can give her comfort for more than a few minutes at best, and you can tell when she suppresses the pain in front of family or friends and puts on a brave face. She and I will be watching the debate with much interest.

  • Comment number 10.

    Whether you are religious or not - no-one should criticise an individual's choice in this controversial matter unless they have (to borrow an old adage) "walked in their shoes". Every individual has a right to die with dignity - whatever form that takes !

    Intelligent debate is the way forward and matters such as this have been swept under the carpet for far too long. Death is a part of life, too many people have fears about it. Many people need to come to terms with the fact that yes, you will die one day and to end your own life on your own terms should be a given.

    Those who know Terry, know that he does not take this subject lightly and will do his level best to present all aspects and concerns as objectively as possible - he wont bang on about his way being the right way - he firmly believes it should be down to the individual with their own unique set of circumstances - and will try to show this - I really look forward to the programme and the debate afterwards and think everyone should watch it with an open mind before casting any aspersions about anyone involved in the making of it.

  • Comment number 11.

    So glad to see that other people are sick of the BBC giving Terry Pratchett air-time & licence payers' money to promote his views. I'd be more convinced by the BBC's claims to be balanced if they EVER showed any positive portrayals of people who, like me, have degenerative conditions. But no, we only appear in programmes about assisted suicide or charity appeals.

  • Comment number 12.

    Has everyone else been directed here after complaining? Was this to make us think we have a voice but, actualy, nobody's listening? I'm going to the BBC Trust.

  • Comment number 13.

    This unfortunately totally misses the point of my complaint. I agree the issue should be discussed in a fair way, but this programme cannot achieve neutrality by talking to people who make a different choice from the presenter. The pro-euthanasia lobby don't want everyone to choose to kill themselves, they want everyone to be able to choose to do so. The programme as described totally supports that view. Using a celebrity to front it further erodes neutrality, for it adds spurious weight to the argument.

    The BBC ought to be desperately wary of influencing anyone to choose euthanasia - this programme cannot fail to do that, if we follow a man who is already decided, overcomes his negative reactions, and still thinks he will do it. It removes potential obstacles in people's minds if he "gets over" them.

    A studio debate is NOT a balancing item, for it is a totally different vehicle, of cut and thrust, off-the-cuff reactions. A documentary of one hour followed by 30 minutes of debate is nothing like balanced - we would need two programmes of equal quality and power before a debate could be said to be fair.

    And 9pm is far too early. It will catch late-to-bed children, and early-to-bed older people, who will hear (the presumably persuasive) Pratchett, and turn off before the debate and miss any other views altogether.

    Please, even at this stage, pull the programme at least until true balance can be properly achieved, and consider if such contentious methods should be ruled out in future.

  • Comment number 14.

    The supporters of Terry Pratchet are being unreasonable. 'Trust him' they tell us - he will give us a balance view. That is like expecting Jamie Oliver to give a good case for take aways. If we are going to have debate, let's have a fair hearing for someone against assisted suicide and in favour of palliative care.

  • Comment number 15.

    In a reply to a complaint I put in concerning this programme being screened I was told that "the BBC does not have stance on assisted suicide".
    This is not my perception nor that of The Times in its comment on this programme.

    Lets see a proper balance struck by a programme portraying sympathetically the palliative care of terminally ill patients who are allowed to die naturally and spend their last days in a dignified manner.

  • Comment number 16.

    I had a sister who died young as a result of MS from which she suffered for 20 years. The last 6 months of her life were spent in hospital fighting one infection after another until her body finally succumbed. Although the last weeks of her life were filled with discomfort and pain, she was still able to love and be loved. She was still valued and played her part in the lives of all of us who loved her. That seems to me the epitome of dignity. Dignity is not about the doing away with pain and discomfort. These are both part of the human condition. Dignity is about how we deal with the pain and discomfort. It is the presence of love and the knowledge of value which bring dignity, not the absence of pain or the right to choose to end suffering, that is forensic. I fear that the BBC have given up on dignity in favour of making a one sided contribution to a very difficult debate and the presence of Terry Pratchett whose views on the subject are well known, merely serves to confirm my fears. The naming of the Swiss clinic as Dignitas seems to me to be a contradiction in terms.

  • Comment number 17.

    The BBC is in the privileged position of being able to dictate what is debated in the public arena via their broadcasts i.e. if they broadcast shows on whether the traffic speeding laws should be changed then people will discuss it and this show will no doubt lead to debate on assisted suicide as evidenced by this page. Hence, no matter how unbiased a documentary is they still have a responsibility in what they show. They seem to, quite rightly, recognise this responsibility when it comes to the far-right and the BNP however the above blog appears to ignore this responsibility.

  • Comment number 18.

    Ok, full disclosure: I'm an American. You have been warned.

    I have been in love with the words of Terry Pratchett for over two decades now, and feel that everything that pours from his brain is intelligent, wise, and life affirming.

    He will not tell everyone watching their telly to go out and kill themselves. If he did, anyone who listened and ended their lives based solely on the word of a celebrity (Even one as respected, charming, and undeniably handsome as Sir Terry) was probably doomed by the combination of stupidity and a total lack of self-preservation instinct to a shortened lifespan anyway.

    As to the "think about the children" argument, if a parent lets their child see the show they're probably sufficiently aware of their child's intellectual and emotional development, and making the decision based on that, and if a child watches the show without their parents awareness, then maybe the parent in question should stop trying to control the airwaves and learn to be a better parent.

    Everyone should have a right to their life, and if it's their life they should be free to do with it what they want.

    Though I literally weep for the loss of such a voice as his, if Sir Terry does choose to end his life, I will raise a glass to his memory, his sure and respectable choice of the method of his end, and his immortal works that will assure that he is remembered fondly.

    Cheers, Terry, the world will be a less magical place without you.

  • Comment number 19.

    I also cannot accept the claim by the BBC that they are "balanced" in this. The facts speak for themselves. Just watch the history of the coverage of the "debate"! It's akin to having one party kept outside of the House of Commons during a debate, with a few members of the "opposition" being invited to give their opinion separate from that debate.

    The outcome of a bill to allow assisted suicide certainly would lead to enforced euthanasia eventually. Again history is a strong witness to that - just examine the history of the state of Sweden in the 1930's!

    Perhaps, with the imminent and huge problem of a growing aging population, the social engineers, who seem to have a grip of so much today, think they're doing society a favour!!!

  • Comment number 20.

    Given that I MUST pay my license fee to the BBC, I object in the strongest possible terms to this programme. Terry Pratchett is a well known advocate of assisted suicide and I don't want my license fee funding this kind of ideological propaganda - but I don't have a choice, do I?!

    This kind of programme is more akin to Channel 4. Why doesn't Terry Pratchett get them to fund his ideology?

    Given that the BCC is a bastion of objective reality, I look forward to viewing a programme with a bias in the opposite direction.

  • Comment number 21.

    Let it be said there was no victory in Pratchett's programme. He was not GLAD people died. He wants people to have more rights that they may not use. He was not HAPPY to see these people he liked and got to know to die. Although his programme was not as unbiased as I thought it would be in terms of the people in it, the message was. Do people still think our money was not worth this issue?

  • Comment number 22.

    Yes Matthew.
    I would rather the BBC produced unbiased reports and programmes that allow viewers to make up their own minds. Am I asking too much of the BBC?

  • Comment number 23.

    I watched the programme last night feeling that it was my responsibility after having commented on my fears in anticipation. My fears, after having watched, were fully realised in that it was not a neutral documentary on the subject but a blatant piece of propaganda. I noted with interest that Terry Pratchett is a man of feeling and I am sure that his sadness at the loss of two people whom he had come to know in part was genuine but his comment at the end, after the death of Mr Smedley, that it was beautiful, or words to that effect, could not have been more wrong. It was tragic. It was tragic that a wife was bereft of a husband in a piece of voyeurism, tasteful in a way, but nevertheless voyeurism. And the forensic way in which the potions were offered made my flesh creep. Many people are afraid of death and the action of dying but, because of my role, it has been my privilege to have been with many people and their families at the moment of their death and it has never been anything other than a peaceful act. What we saw last evening was anything but peaceful and I cannot imagine how Mrs Smedley felt at having a precious moment taken away from her for the sake of Terry Pratchett's own search. The hero in it all, for me at least, was the man who was being cared for in a hospice feeling that the joy of relating was greater than the misery of suffering. I also noted with sadness that Terry Pratchett's value system seems to be that when he can no longer work effectively, he wants to die and this despite the fact that his wife wants to show her love for him by caring for him, yet he would rob her of that privilege because his values inhere in his job and not in that relationship. Shame on you BBC!

  • Comment number 24.

    I absolutely agree with the fact that this should not have been shown. It's ridiculous that my money goes to programs that will start a debate. Because it's all about me and my opinion. Everyone else's does not count.
    It's also true that if this law passes everybody will be euthanised involuntarily. Look at Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. People are being killed left and right.
    I also think that it is my right to judge people while I'm not in their situation. Somebody who chooses to set up their own death are cowards. People who die in pain heroes.

    Come on people. If you did not like the program, there's a button on your remote.

  • Comment number 25.

    By the sounds of many arguments, even those on Newsnight, people seem to have forgotten that as a species we do not want to die. We want to live. Would you rather die in extreme pain and sadness or with clarity, and peacefully? Everybody surely would prefer to die in their sleep? In peace. Anybody who would rather suffer is lying to themselves and others. It is not weak to stick it out to the bitter end, nor is it weak to want to end it. Its just a question personal choice and if one person thinks assisted suicide is wrong then they wont make that choice. But if another is in a position where its what they want, who is anybody to tell them otherwise? That option should be made available. Just as hospice, home care etc is made available to others who would not choose assisted suicide.

    Another thing to point out is many views are thinking that this is something that someone takes lightly and just decides. Why would anybody with a sound mind not think this through? Its a huge decision and something that would never be taken lightly. And for those people suggesting that "people will be killed left and right" and euthanasia will become involuntary, what kind of society do you live in, where you would allow that to happen? Do you really think that people will let that happen? After the history of Europe? This issue is about control and respect for peoples wishes so do not undermine or disregard peoples rights and feelings just because you disagree.

  • Comment number 26.

    Congratulations to the BBC for making such a thought provoking, balanced documentary. It was very difficult to watch at times and when the gentleman died my wife was sick as it brought back memories of when my father passed away and we were at his bedside. My fathers death was sadly not as peaceful as the gentlemans on this documentary, he had cancer and was in hospital on morphine but he still died a painful death and the final moments were horrendous to witness. If my dad had been given a choice I believe he would have chosen to die peacefully and at a time of his choosing. Despite medical advances in this country we can not guarantee everyone a pain free death no matter what anyone says. I do not think that this documentary was propaganda either, I didn't come away agreeing with Terry, my mind still isn't made up but I understand where Terry was coming from. It did make me think about the subject and debate it with family members which is surely what documentaries are all about. So once again, thank you BBC and please do continue to make such thought provoking, controversial documentaries. I am happy to pay my licence fee for this type of programming rather than the brainless reality programmes that seem to be on every channel these days.

  • Comment number 27.

    I find it strangely concerning that people will put a pet 'to sleep' to avoid it suffering in illness/injury/old age but make attempts to stop relatives taking this step for themselves when in the same circumstances - does this mean we think more of our pets than our relatives, or typically, are humans just selfish?

    The facts of life are that we are born, we live, we die... in most cases, we cannot choose how we die, it might be an accident, sudden illness, old age etc, but with careful legislation and safeguards in place, there is no reason why 'Assisted Suicide' should not be legal, after all in certain instances we turn off Life Support Machines, Patients are allowed to refuse food and treatment in hospital and prisoners have gone on hunger strike.

    A point I made on another blog is this - I have been Fed, Bathed, Changed etc once in my life already - when I was a baby, I do not ever want to be in that position again, therefore I have a living will to deal with circumstances that could leave me in a position later in life where I am unable to make such decisions...

    At 50 I have had a good life, if I died tomorrow it would not bother me, I am happy and content with what I have achieved... we have to STOP treating death as something to hide under the table and learn to accept it comes to us all and some of us in the right circumstances, would like to choose how and when we pass on...!

  • Comment number 28.

    The WHO international guidelines on suicide portrayal refer to over 50 published studies, systematic reviews of which have consistently drawn the same conclusion, that media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours. This phenomenon is variably termed suicide contagion, copycat suicide, suicide cluster or the Werther effect.

    This programme breached these international guidelines on suicide portrayal and, as such, poses a significant risk to vulnerable people. There is a real risk that copycat suicides will follow the screening.

    See http://bit.ly/mj7zxP

  • Comment number 29.

    I thought the programme was sensitiviley handled and presented in such a way as to inform rather than influence the viewers.

    I, personally would like to pay tribute to the families of both Mr Smedley and Mr Colgan who chose the option of Dignitas, for the love and courage which they clearly showed in supporting their loved ones at such a heart wrenching time.

    Can we, the public, now show them the dignity which they are owed, to come to terms with their loss.

    All the conteniousness and hysteria that there is currently in the press must surely be hurtful to the families of both Mr Smedley and Mr Colgan, who, after all is said and done, made their own choices which were personal to them, as it will be Terry Pratchetts choice to make for himself; at a time of his choosing.

  • Comment number 30.

    Firstly, I wanted to say thanks to everyone who has watched the programme and has talked about it on the BBC TV blog, on twitter, on facebook, on radio phone-ins and (I'm sure) with friends. It's clear that assisted death is an extremely controversial topic – British opinion is mixed and a variety of attitudes exist as I can see in the comments above and in the feedback that we've had.

    I know lots of you have concerns about the BBC's stance on the subject, so I'd just like to be clear – we are completely impartial on the issue of assisted death (as with all other issues). I understand there have been a number of programmes featuring Terry Pratchett, but he is a public figure that many of our audience are interested in. But we also appreciate that the subject of assisted death, or living with a degenerative condition is a very complicated subject which is why we come at it in a variety of ways.

    So whilst, Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die focused on Terry's personal journey and the individual choices of the men he meets, the Newsnight special looked at the legalities and ethics of assisted death in the UK. A few weeks ago a BBC 1 programme showed us the natural death of an elderly gentleman who died at home having received hospice care and recently we had a series called the Children of Helen's House. Esther Rantzen has looked at the subject of How To Have A Good Death, and we frequently feature palliative care experts, hospice workers, legislators and the public on television and radio, on programmes like The Big Question, Question Time and the Politics Show. It's not a simple yes/no issue, which is why we believe it is important to encourage discussion and debate.

    I completely understand why this is a difficult subject for many, and why some of you would prefer not to see an assisted death on television. However as a public service broadcaster, it is our duty to reflect the subjects that affect our lives so that people can make informed decisions on the subject. Last night a Newsnight poll made it very clear that the British public is split on this issue – there are those who support assisted death, those that don’t, many are just unsure. There is no real majority, no clear side that wins out.

    We understand that this isn't to everyone's liking but it would be irresponsible for us to avoid subjects, however difficult they may be.

    Charlotte Moore, Commissioning Editor for documentaries

  • Comment number 31.

    Terry Pratchet's programme was one of the most emotionally draining programmes I have ever watched.Anyone who watched it and was not moved to tears is devoid of feeling. The concept of assisted dying cannot be dismissed out of hand. I had never given much thought to this but now I feel it deserves serious consideration on all levels.I was struck by the dignity of all concerned during the final moments of Peter Smedley's life and by his enourmous bravery.Congratulations to the BBC for making it.

  • Comment number 32.

    Having complained about the programme's bias, I've now received a (I assume) standard email stating: 'This film did not promote assisted death.' Whatever else may be said, this is simply nonsense. Terry Pratchett has been campaigning publicly on the issue for a while and it was clearly a film from a certain viewpoint. Such a parti pris piece could be argued to have a legitimate place within a wider debate, but to pretend that it wasn't a work of advocacy at all is silly and shows that the BBC hasn't got to grips with the difficulties of how to present this discussion fairly.

  • Comment number 33.

    I too feel that it is inappropriate of the BBC to become the voice of assisted suicide by showing programmes like this. Like others I got the standard response to my complaint. Showing a young man with MS (not a terminal illness) going to kill himself with help is obscene and instead the BBC should be campaigning for more support for the disabled and elderly.

  • Comment number 34.

    What agreat program. Thanks for bringing this delicate subject to the fore.

  • Comment number 35.

    to be honest it was the ending that i have the problem with, i think it was wrong to show the person killing himself. this was not tactful and no matter what people say. the program makers went to far, i am still upset bout it.

  • Comment number 36.

    I just watched the programme and the discussion on IPlayer.
    As lots of other contributors here I am very surprised that the BBC showed a person die on television. However, I do not think it was wrong, even though it was upsetting.
    Some here have raised concerns on euthanasia and vulnerable people being forced to commit suicide. I do not think they really get the point of this programme. Assisted suicide it about giving individuals the choice to die at the point they think their quality of life is becoming unbearable. It is obvious, that is case assisted suicide should ever be legal in this country, vulnerable people have to be protected.
    What needs to be considered is that every individual human being is very different and also that every illness is different and is felt differently by each person. Like with other controversial topics (e.g. organ transplants) it is virtually impossible to predict how anybody is going to react if they find themselves in a situation where they have to make such a choice..
    I am very grateful to Tery Pratchett and the BBC to have made this programme and I very much hope that this will start a thorough debate on assisted suicide.
    During the debate, there was criticism that there was nobody shown in the programme having a 'good' natural death of an illness as shown in the programme. I know why this was not done. I have seen two family members die in circumstances where they were unable to move or communicate for many months or even several years. Seeing that is more upsetting than watching a person drink poison out of his own free will.

  • Comment number 37.

    Add your comment

    Since the BBC is now so morally unwholesome, 'rank' might be a better word-just look at the horror shows set in hospitals such as Casualty and Holby City,then the only sensible position is to disregard the necessary bletherings about 'impartiality' and see that where health is concerned their purpose is to help achieve in everyday reality what they exaggerate in these increasingly less so fictions. And the matter to be defeated is the couple of seconds or so between when as a person may mention premature demise and the newly consciousable response to it by others and the NHS around them and where an early departure would be of as certain resource advantage to one as it might be of financial benefit to others.
    And although some would find on their terms, the release they sought, others would be moved towards it against their unexpressed will out of a new norm resource hogging guilt under a pall of the worst of disillusionment that some of those close to them are not as close after all. Euthenasia under the guise of compassion.

  • Comment number 38.

    Add your comment

    And by the way, although a person may be assisted to die, their death can't be assisted because there can no longer a person to be assisted.
    But as they say, semantics are only the stuff of facilitating euphemisms.

 

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