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Loving someone sometimes means saying no to them

Posted by Anthony Ozimic on 19 February 2016

The BBC's shameless promotion of assisted suicide poses a risk to the lives of suicidal people

Last week the BBC broadcast a documentary which followed the final months of a businessman with motor neurone disease who chose assisted suicide in Switzerland. The documentary raised some very troubling questions.

Before I watched it, I was prepared to find that "How to Die: Simon's Choice" would be a typical BBC documentary; in other words, it would distort the facts to suit the corporation's 'progressive' agenda. However, while the film was biased, this particular broadcast was more clever – and much more disturbing. In fact, it was one of the most macabre things I have ever seen on screen. It was the voyeurism of death.

Millions of viewers worldwide were shown many of the most private and emotionally harrowing moments in the life of Simon Binner, his marriage and his family. Strained conversations, intimate reunions and personal agonies were seen from the perspective of a fly on the wall. Towards the end of the documentary, we see Simon bid farewell to his wife and then move the dial to start the drip of poison. The camera keeps rolling as his wife and friends watch him pass beyond the vale.

Surely such intensely private moments should not be shared with the world?

Unreality of Assisted Suicide

One of the things which strikes me about the movement for assisted suicide is its unreality. That movement has cleverly exploited personal stories to give the impression that there is something so extraordinary about them that assisted suicide is the only answer. Yet death from motor neurone disease is not that much different from the deaths which millions of people suffer every year from cancer or Parkinson's Disease. As Simon's own consultant neurologist said, 99% of his motor neurone disease patients choose not suicide, but rather palliative care and a peaceful death.

The documentary also reflected that unreality through its cinematography. There was a dreamy, almost pop-music video feel to certain parts of the film. Simon was depicted as a wonderful family man with an extraordinarily bubbly personality. The vicar at his funeral feted him as a "force of nature". Among the eulogising, a friend claimed that Simon "never wallowed in self-pity".

Love and Death

Yet it was clear to me that Simon was a proud man who regarded illness, disability and dependence to be beneath his dignity. At one point, Simon wrote a note complaining that being washed and dressed by a carer was a "humiliation" and that he "would genuinely rather die than be unmanly". Yet this is despite the fact that such dependence is the common experience of human beings: babies need changing, wounded soldiers need lifting, the elderly need help dressing, etc.

Simon's determination to kill himself was opposed by his wife Debbie, who said: "I feel very, very strongly that he is not a burden." She referred to "the sanctity of human life" and challenged the motives of the doctor at the assisted suicide centre. She even complained to her husband that he was putting her in a traumatic position. Nonetheless, Debbie Binner became complicit in her husband's death through her decision to go along with his choice. No doubt this decision was motivated by her love for him. But loving someone sometimes means saying no to them.

Questions for the BBC

There are many other questionable aspects about the documentary. Were the BBC trying to bolster the assisted suicide lobby after the defeat of the Marris bill? To what extent was Simon's decision made inevitable by the film-making process? What effect did it have on vulnerable viewers? On that last question, I will leave you with this incisive comment from Dr Trevor Stammers, bioethicist at St Mary's University, Twickenham:

"The media presentation of the assisted suicide debate strongly shapes the narrative of the story that society as a whole constructs about life and death and may alter the balance in the mind of viewers, particularly during and in the immediate aftermath of witnessing a person's life being deliberately ended by their own hand. Vulnerable viewers questioning the value of their own lives may be influenced towards choosing suicide, assisted or otherwise, for themselves if the impression is conveyed that this is a painless and certain way of ending ongoing suffering - physical, mental or both.

The Werther effect - a spike increase of 'copy-cat suicide' is well known to be influenced by the manner of media reporting of suicides. Knowing the person's name, and detailing the kind of person they were, may increase identification with them. Providing step-by-step details of the manner of death might also increase the risk of fueling suicidal desire in viewers. Sensationalism and the attribution of the wish for death to a single cause such as 'a happy release from suffering' are all other recognised features increasing suicide risk, as is describing the effects of the death on family and friends, emphasizing its effect on public perception and the suggestion that such deaths are common. Some or all of these factors have been present in similar programmes in the past. Broadcasters have a responsibility to public not emphasize such features when reporting suicide or assisted suicide."

SPUC's Lives Worth Living campaign is fighting to protect vulnerable people - like the elderly, ill and disabled - from the threat of assisted suicide. Sign our Declaration of Support now.

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