The 61-year-old “came out” as an Alzheimer’s sufferer in 2007, and the essay is shot through with Pratchett’s own sense of mortality. He writes:
I hate the term ‘assisted suicide’. I have witnessed the aftermath of two suicides, and as a journalist I attended far too many coroners’ inquests, where I was amazed and appalled at the many ways that desperate people find to end their lives.
Suicide is fear, shame, despair and grief. It is madness.
Those brave souls lately seeking death abroad seem to me, on the other hand, to be gifted with a furious sanity. They have seen their future, and they don’t want to be part of it.
Pratchett acknowledges the issue of obligation, which Kerry brought up vis-a-vis the Downes -the potential that some elderly or terminally ill people may feel pressured to end their lives, for fear of becoming a burden on family members. Pratchett recalls a fan of his, a young boy who was terminally ill but still full of “fortitude and [a] sense of style.” He writes:
I would like to think my refusal to go into care towards the end of my life might free up the resources for people such as him.
Let me make this very clear: I do not believe there is any such thing as a ‘duty to die’; we should treasure great age as the tangible presence of the past, and honour it as such.
I know that last September Baroness Warnock was quoted, or possibly misquoted, as saying the very elderly sick had a ‘duty to die’, and I have seen people profess to fear that the existence of a formalised approach to assisted dying could lead to it somehow becoming part of national health policy.
I very much doubt this could be the case. We are a democracy and no democratic government is going to get anywhere with a policy of compulsory or even recommended euthanasia. If we were ever to end up with such a government, we would be in so much trouble that the problem would become the least of our worries.
But neither do I believe in a duty to suffer the worst ravages of terminal illness.
Ultimately, Pratchett’s perspective on the matter is borne out of a belief that people are essentially rational, well-meaning creatures who should be trusted to make their own decisions. “In this country we have rather lost faith in the wisdom of ordinary people,” he writes. “And it is ordinary people, ultimately, who must make such decisions.”
The whole thing is worth a read, if just to see how a man who once envisioned Death as a character is learning to face up to the real thing.