Catholic novelist Michael D. O'Brien is criticizing the “false compassion” of British fantasy author Terry Pratchett, whose early-onset Alzheimer's disease has spurred him to advocate for assisted suicide.
“No matter what a person may tell themselves about the unjust taking of human life for supposedly 'compassionate reasons,' the inner conscience of man does not let him live easily with this falsehood,” O'Brien told CNA on August 12.
O'Brien, an author and painter best known for his near-future “Children of the Last Days” novels, said lawmakers “must be made aware that, directly or indirectly, they will be participants in murder if they legalize yet another expanding field of the culture of death.”
Pratchett, whose 39 books include the bestselling “Discworld” series, recently told National Public Radio that “everyone should have a good death,” even if this requires recourse to suicide. Pratchett prefers to use different terminology, however, “because suicide is an irrational thing, whereas I think that for some people asking for an assisted death is a very rational thing.”
“People who I have met who have opted for it are very rational in their thinking,” the 63-year-old Pratchett told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, in a profile story broadcast August 11. “And indeed so are their families, quite often, because they know they are in the grip of a terrible disease for which there is no cure and they do not want to spend any more time than necessary in the jaws of the beast.”
The Discworld author's wife and daughter “understand the situation and, like me, are waiting to see how things go.” For now, he wants to continue living – so that he can keep promoting a right to die: “I'm gonna fight for that one, and I can't fight for that one if I'm dead.”
NPR's profile of Pratchett acknowledged the controversy over assisted suicide – but it passed over the objections of many medical ethicists, who maintain that life itself is never a disease in need of a fatal “treatment.” In the original version of the Hippocratic Oath, which also condemns abortion, doctors swore not to “give a lethal drug to anyone” nor “advise such a plan.”
O'Brien, whose novels chronicle many disturbing contemporary trends, said the modern West has established “a culture saturated with the notion that death is a handy tool for solving social problems,” as shown by the “vast number of human lives” destroyed through abortion and other means.
He explained that the legalization of suicide would establish in law the notion that life has no inherent worth, such that it can be discarded at will.
“To kill a person with Alzheimers, for example, or mentally handicapped infants and children, or to assist a person taking his own life, is saying yes to a deadly lie, and at the same time it permits us to escape a painful situation,” O'Brien noted.
“In the modern age we have been programmed to flee suffering of any kind, or to drug it, to avoid it at all costs.
“I underline the phrase 'at all costs,' because that is where the erosion of the ultimate dignity of man will lead us.”
“In the end,” he predicted, “we will see that the incidents of assisted suicide now occurring in the world, if given legitimization under law, will play a role in leading us all to widespread euthanasia—in other words, compulsory death.”
“The very people who are now chanting 'compassion' may very well find themselves at the receiving end of a lethal injection in the not too distant future.”
O'Brien cited the words of the late British Catholic convert and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge, who reflected during the 1970s that “the delay in creating public pressure for euthanasia has been due to the fact that it was one of the [Nazi] war crimes cited at Nuremberg.”
In his NPR interview, Pratchett spoke of his ideal death scenarios, giving a poignant and superficially appealing portrait of the “death with dignity” that suicide advocates claim as a right.
“You know, with your grandchildren around you, a bit of sobbing,” he imagined. “And you say goodbye to your loved ones, making certain that one of them has been left behind to look after the shop.”
Pratchett also spoke about a real suicide he witnessed in Switzerland, while working on a BBC documentary. “This gentleman, being a very English gentleman, thanks everybody who was there for coming. And he drunk of the drink, and very shortly after he died.”
But O'Brien insisted that it was never right for friends and family to become accomplices to this taking of life, just as it could never be right for individuals – of any religion, or none – to treat their own lives as a disease.
He emphasized that friends and family, out of love for the terminally ill, must never give spoken or silent consent to suicide.
“I feel sympathy for (Pratchett's) sufferings,” O'Brien reflected. “If he were a family member, friend, neighbor, or acquaintance I would do all in my power to ease his sufferings, but I would not take it upon myself to destroy him or to cooperate in his self-destruction.”
“To be a suicide advocate in any way is to be a participant in murder. Not to act in defense of life, is to act (in complicity). There are no innocent bystanders when the unjust taking of human life occurs.”
In many of Pratchett's own comedic novels, “Death” appears personified as a recurring and sympathetic character – fond of cats and Indian food, tending to his routine of ushering characters out of the imagined universe of “Discworld.”
O'Brien, who is currently preparing a novel with fantasy elements, said all fiction writers have a duty “to maintain what J.R.R. Tolkien called 'the moral order of the universe'” in their imaginary worlds, no less than in their own lives. In that moral order, the intentional taking of innocent life is always wrong – and the patient endurance of suffering is a test of heroic virtue.
“To die with authentic dignity is a true heroism,” O'Brien said, noting that it can also “evoke another kind of heroism from those who are suffering with a dying person through the dying process.”
While Pratchett and others present the question of suicide purely as one of individual rights, O'Brien believes the real question is one that confronts the whole of humanity: Are all people worthy of love and care, or are some lives disposable?
“In essence, that is the choice before mankind at this stage of history,” the Catholic author stated. “Will we become people of authentic love, or will we become a race of murderous sentimentalists?”