Intense drama of those who choose death
JANUARY is notoriously a time of plummeting spirits – the mental kind, not the bottled variety. When you also consider the economic recession, why would anyone decide to spend 90 minutes on a Sunday evening watching a film about a woman choosing to die?
The fact that people tuned in to BBC2 on Sunday for A Short Stay in Switzerland surely tells us something about the compassion and fairness of the great British public. Because here was a disaster that eclipses economic hardship, redundancy or bankruptcy.
Julie Walters must take some of the credit for her brilliant portrayal of Anne Turner. She's played plenty of gritty roles but she admits this was one of her most taxing to date. Difficult to act; difficult to watch. It is fitting this film was aired on the anniversary of Dr Turner's death. In January 2006, her story hit the headlines and it informed this one-off drama.
Dr Turner, a doctor for 30 years, has progressive supranuclear palsy. She has nursed her husband through a similar degenerative neurological condition and watched her brother die of motor neurone disease. She knows precisely what is ahead of her. She's a strong, intelligent woman, used to being in control. A slow slide into complete dependence is not for her.
Her courage is moving, but beneath the gallows humour we see the grief – for her lost dreams, her beloved children. She's already attempted to take her own life once – and failed. For her children's sake as well as her own, next time she's taking no chances.
We have been swamped by real-life tales of similar battles of late. Debbie Purdy, Craig Ewert, Daniel James and Margo MacDonald have all received coverage. Do we need to dramatise the issues too?
I believe the answer is yes. This subject is bigger than mere facts. This film takes us into the minds and hearts of a family. A family for whom every choice is a tragic one. Their dilemma affects us all. When over a hundred Britons have felt compelled to seek assistance overseas we have to ask ourselves, what kind of a society do we want? In Anne Turner's shoes, what would I choose?
I confess, even though I have worked in the field of medical ethics for decades, and last year wrote a novel on this very subject, I still find the questions disturbing. I don't want my last hours to be spent in an impersonal room in a foreign country, my final moments being recorded, the police hovering.
But neither do I want to die an agonising, slow death, control slipping away from me inch by painful inch. And I certainly don't want my family to suffer – either by watching me disintegrate, or putting themselves at risk for my sake.
Of course, the majority of us will never have to face such an appalling situation. But Sunday's film highlighted the burdens that compound our present laws for those who are so trapped. Should they be forced to endure unbearable suffering because others – in good health – say they must? The new law currently being proposed doesn't oblige them to seek death; it gives them a choice.
If that choice doesn't exist, should it be necessary for them to end their lives prematurely – because they must still be able to travel to Switzerland, give consent, swallow the lethal medicine, or press a plunger? Experience shows they will tolerate more – live longer – if they know there's a solution when they need it.
Should their grieving families have to face inquiries and hostile reactions? Where's the humanity in that? Of course, new legislation will be vulnerable to abuse. But surely the history legalised abortion has taught us a powerful lesson: there must be stringent safeguards, and they must be enforced. Parliamentary campaigners, including MSPs Jeremy Purvis and Margo MacDonald, have refined their proposals repeatedly to try to ensure such safeguards are in place.
But – and it's a planet-sized "but" – if we go down this route, who will administer that fatal dose? Preferably someone who understands the medical complexities, who empathises with the suffering, but the overwhelming majority of doctors aren't in favour of legalising assisted dying. Many indeed are vociferously opposed. And I can understand why. A very long time ago, I was a nurse, and I couldn't end someone's life deliberately. I couldn't do it for a stranger, far less someone I've come to care about. There's something about life – human life especially – that makes it infinitely precious.
But if I couldn't do it, what right have I to require others to do it? My brain is at odds with my heart on this one.
The courage of Anne Turner using her own death to raise awareness of the issue, her wry humour and her determination, made this a powerful drama; more triumphant than depressing. But the heartbreaking scenes with her children living through this decision reinforce the human cost of such a choice.
I found myself approving of this film much more strongly than the televising of a real-life suicide in Switzerland in December.
Death – dying – isn't a spectator sport. It's an intensely emotional and intimate experience. But fiction and drama license us to creep inside the skins of characters and feel their pain, face their questions. If we're going to make wise choices when it comes to life's cruellest dilemmas, then we can't hover a safe distance away from the emotion. For families like the Turners, this is not just a Sunday evening TV programme, but a living nightmare of weeks, months, years.
• Hazel McHaffie is the author of Right to Die (Luath Press)
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east