One of the most moving television documentaries I have seen was screened last week. It told the story of Simon Binner and his battle with the terminal illness Motor Neurone Disease (MND).
Simon’s moving story and subsequent struggle with the illness formed part of a BBC Two Documentary called ‘How to Die: Simon’s Choice’. MND seemed particularly cruel for Simon, who was fluent in four different languages and was educated at Cambridge, because it quickly robbed him of the ability to speak.
The disease slowly turned the brilliant businessman into a shadow of his former self. He knew the illness would kill him between six months to two years, so he decided he’d either have to kill himself or be euthanised.
Heartbreakingly, his wife had already lost her 18-year-old daughter, Chloe, to bone cancer only three years before. Having nursed her daughter through the worst of her illness, Debbie struggled with Simon’s choice and was seen throughout the documentary trying to change his mind. But as the MND progressed, Simon lost all power of speech, was struggling to walk, and was beginning to lose function in his hands. He’d reached a point where he had to be washed by a hired help. Simon felt he was losing his dignity and he didn’t want to be a burden. Instead, the 57 year-old chose to end his life in a Swiss suicide clinic 600 miles from home.
He died on October 19th last year, just ten months after his initial diagnosis.
The debate-provoking programme followed Simon and his family throughout those precious ten months, before his untimely death at the Eternal Spirit Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. The medication used to end his life was 30 times the strength of a normal anaesthetic. The cameras rolled as he opened up the portal and allowed the drugs to flood his bloodstream and shut his body down.
It made for shocking viewing, but it also told Simon’s story from all sides, including his distraught wife, Debbie. She’d been utterly heartbroken by her husband’s decision but decided to back him after he tried to end his life in a botched suicide attempt. Others may not agree, but I believe those suffering from a terminal illness should be able to choose how and when they die. I’d never really had any real strong feelings about euthanasia until five years ago, when I watched my father die a slow and agonising death in hospital. Although the nurses were amazing, my heart shattered into thousands of pieces as, day by day, I watched another part of Dad begin to shut down. It seemed so cruel. I loved my dad. He was a proud man who didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. I remember saying to my mother, ‘they wouldn’t let a dog suffer like this.’ And the bottom line is they wouldn’t.
If you sat and watched an animal suffer, you’d be prosecuted. Yet were expected to sit and watch loved ones suffer and linger until their final breath. It’s wrong. I know pro-lifers will be up in arms, yet it seems to me the people who object the most probably haven’t had to watch their own flesh and blood linger on for weeks, knowing there’s just one ending. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s not only distressing for the patient, but for the relatives who have to witness the brutality of it.
Although Simon chose his death on his own terms, he was unable to do it in his own country.
Instead, he was forced t0 board a plane bound for Switzerland. Where’s the dignity in that?
The programme has reignited the whole euthanasia debate and that can only be a good thing. It’s hard to know what we’d choose to do in Simon’s position, yet I expect a terminal diagnosis would sharpen your perspective. The real tragedy was Simon able to choose the time and nature of his death but unable to do it in his own home.