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Classic Letters from THE RADIO TIMES 24th AUGUST 1972


‘Doomwatch’: have the old a right to die?

I MUST PROTEST about Doomwatch: Cause of Death (7 August, BBC1), in which the authors were obviously trying to start up a scandal where none exists. Their treatment of a very topical subject was insensitive and trite.
Surely the people responsible for this series must realise that there is a world of difference between the action of euthanasia and the passive withholding of medical
treatment, without which old people are allowed to die with peace and dignity,
often having suffered coronary thrombosis, or being left inarticulate and/or crippled following a stroke.
If the producers had any real knowledge or experience of the nursing and care of old folk they would realise that many of them would prefer to die quietly and peacefully, not necessarily because they feel they are a burden to society but because they do not want to live a life that may be both mentally and physically restrictive.
Contrary to what the programme suggested, many doctors do respect the wishes of these old people and allow them a merciful end to their suffering.
As a doctor on All in a Day’s Work (BBC1) suggested on 6 August, we are all too reluctant today to discuss the details of  dath and dying.
(Mrs) J. I. Anderson, SRN

Radcliffe-on-Trent,
Nottinghamshire

The individual’s right

Doomwatch on euthanasia certainly brought out the urgent need for legislation to safeguard the individual’s right to opt out of prolonged medicated existence. John Ridge’s exaggerated horror at the suggestion is typical of the attitude of many who fail to appreciate that dying, like everything else, should be a voluntary matter.
Instead of that, society clings to its primitive and irrational attitude that birth may be controlled and living modified according to desires and resources, but that you must on no account .die until you have exhausted all and every artificial means medicine has invented to keep you ticking over to the last gasp.
It is a pity the impression remained that the doctor was culpable. His only crime was mercy.
(Dr) S. L. Henderson Smith
Huddersfield


LOUIS MARKS, Author, ‘Cause of Death,’ replies:
I can assure Mrs Anderson that she is wrong on one point. It was precisely because of my experiences in this area that I felt moved to write this play. My wife is a voluntary worker at a home for elderly infirm, and it is because of what I have seen at close quarters — apart from my own family experiences — that 1 wanted to try and place this whole question in a much broader context than the purely medical one in which it is usually discussed. This is why I gave Ridge the last word in condemning Dr Cordell’s ‘solution’ of withdrawing medical treatment.
I know many old sick people wish to be left to die. Sometimes this is because of illness or pain. Just as often it is also prompted by family rejection. This was part of the point of my play. When life becomes meaningless and purposeless death seems a desirable solution.
This is true of all ages. The old happen to be much more vulnerable, and when they collapse under the strain it seems a tempting proposition for the rest of us to agree with them and want to speed their departure.
It is, of course, part of a larger problem - as I hinted in the play. In our streamlined, computerised world with the collapse of community life and the disintegration of the large, multi-generation family there is less and less room for the old and dying.
So those unfortunates who linger on into their late 7Os and 80s are constituting more and more of a headache. Vast economic resources will be needed to meet the social problem.
But vast human resources will be needed, too. It really isn’t good enough to leave it to the doctors.
Because I wanted to try and present this problem in the truest and least melodramatic way, I deliberately avoided the specific issue of euthanasia, and I am sorry that Dr Henderson Smith thought that this was what I was advocating. I feel that all of us - doctors included - must be committed to life and must face up to the consequences of that commitment.
If we aren’t we shall have to face the far more terrifying consequences of a world in which technology continues to erode humanity rather than being its servant. This is the message of Doomwatch, and my play was meant as another comment on this theme.

With thanks to John Archbold

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