BBC’s assisted-suicide documentary divides Britons

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LONDON — Writer Terry Pratchett said Tuesday that watching a man being helped to die has reaffirmed his support for assisted suicide, while anti-euthanasia groups criticized the televised death as propaganda that could encourage copycat suicides.

The suicide, filmed for a BBC documentary, has reopened debate on Britain’s decades-old law against helping another person end their life.

Mr. Pratchett watched Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old British businessman with motor-neuron disease, take a lethal dose of barbiturates at facility run by the Swiss group Dignitas.

A best-selling fantasy author, Mr. Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and is a vocal supporter of the right to die.

He said he was moved by Smedley’s death, broadcast Monday on BBC television.

“He said to me ‘Have a good life.’ And then he shook [my personal assistant] Rob’s hand and said ‘Have a good life, I know I have,’ ” the 63-year-old Mr. Pratchett told the broadcaster.

“The incongruity of the situation overtakes you. A man has died — that’s a bad thing. But he wanted to die — that’s a good thing.”

Mr. Pratchett said he is ashamed British people had “to drag themselves to Switzerland, at considerable cost, in order to get the services that they were hoping for.”

Campaigners against assisted suicide criticized the decision to show Smedley’s death. The former bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, called the program “propaganda on one side.”

“I think an opportunity had been bypassed of having a balanced program. The thousands of people who use the hospice movement and who have a good and peaceful death, there was very little about them,” Mr. Nazir-Ali told BBC radio.

Peter Saunders, campaign director of the group Care Not Killing, said the show could lead to “copycat suicide or suicide contagion.”

He said the group has asked the government “to carry out an urgent investigation into the way that assisted suicide has been covered by the BBC and its link to English suicide rates.”

The BBC denied bias, saying it was “giving people the chance to make their own minds up on the issue.”

The broadcaster said 82 people had contacted it to praise the show after it was broadcast, while 898 had complained, 162 of them after the broadcast.

Assisted suicide is illegal and carries a maximum 14-year sentence in England and Wales, but few people have been prosecuted in recent years for helping friends or relatives die abroad.

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