Heart and Soul: To Die with Dignity?, review: Deeply personal stories in astonishing debate


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The Independent Culture

We are, as a nation, uncomfortable with death. We're particularly squeamish when it comes to discussing the practicalities of a person's end, which is sad because it is one of the most revealing conversations you can have with your loved ones.

Given how we strive to avoid the topic, I wonder how many people switched off before Heart and Soul: To Die with Dignity? on World Service got started. Why ruin a day, they might have thought.

And yet it was an astonishing listen, sharing as it did the deeply personal stories of individuals either nearing the end of their lives or those who were keen to speed the process up.

The presenter John Laurenson was reporting from Belgium, which this year passed a law that allows terminally ill children to choose to die rather than let nature take its course. This extends the country's already liberal assisted dying laws that allows individuals to end their lives on their own terms.

Naturally, the morality of the issue was at the centre of the discussion, though it was the voices of those dealing with the dilemma, from terminally ill patients to those counselling the sick and their families, that gave the programme its power.

At the Topaz day centre on the outskirts of Brussels, Laurenson visited a workshop for the terminally ill. There he met Madelaine, who has Alzheimer's disease and has decided she should rather take her own life than face what she sees as the indignity of losing her mind. She was not one to mince her words. "I wish I will die tomorrow," she said. "I will not become an animal."

Madelaine sounded pretty compos mentis, but the nature of both her condition and her desire not to decline further meant that she had to think ahead (a patient needs to prove that he or she is of sound mind to be eligible for euthanasia). Complicating matters further, when she talked her situation over with her priest, she was met with fierce disapproval. "I am the devil," she shrugged.

Laurenson also spoke to a doctor who carried out euthanasia and was a practising Catholic. Challenged on what many see as the most fundamental of the commandments, she replied: "Though Shalt Not Kill is a law given to a people so they can live as a society... What it means is that you shall not kill another because he is an obstacle or an adversary. Euthanasia is completely different because this is someone who is asking for relief because he is going to die, and death will otherwise come in a violent way."

Laurenson went on to tell us that around five people a day are "killed" by Belgian doctors through euthanasia. His use of the word "killed" stopped you in your tracks. It made it sound very real indeed.

Phillipe Pozzo di Borgo, a French aristocrat who was left quadriplegic after a paragliding accident, felt that killing the weak and vulnerable is never acceptable. This man, who had once tried to take his own life, talked of the "tyranny of normality and productivity" that affects our measuring of whether or not a life is worth living.

Is it possible to balance the right of the individual who wants to die with the responsibility of the rest of us to protect those who don't? Should we safeguard life or speed up death? Inevitably, the programme offered no clear answers, though the fact that it was being discussed was a start. Hearing it was hard, which was all the more reason for us to listen.