After a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis Dame Esther Rantzen has said she will ’buzz off to Zurich’ if treatment is not successful. Alex Noel discusses whether or not we can demand a ’good death’ through assisted dying, as even Jesus suffered horribly in his final hour.
Dame Esther Rantzen - much loved journalist, broadcaster and campaigner - shared on The Today Podcast in December that she has joined Dignitas, the not-for-profit assisted dying clinic in Switzerland. She is perhaps best known for hosting That’s Life! And for what has been described as one of the greatest moments in television history: surprising Nicholas Winton (who rescued 669 children from the Holocaust, bringing them to safety in the UK), with an audience full of people who owed their lives to him.
At 83 Esther Rantzen is exactly the same age as my mother, in fact they were born a week apart in June 1940 - less than a year into World War II. As you might expect, that makes her decision and its implications feel especially close to home. And while my own mum has no intention of joining Dignitas, it has made me consider the position it would put me in if circumstances were different.
Currently being treated with a “miracle drug”, if this fails she might “buzz off to Zurich”
In the interview Rantzen spoke about being diagnosed in January 2023 with stage 4 lung cancer. And how she didn’t think she’d live to see another birthday, let alone another Christmas. Currently being treated with a “miracle drug”, if this fails she might “buzz off to Zurich”. Rantzen explained that she wants to “have a good death” and Dignitas would allow her to decide when to end her own life. Even if she doesn’t; she said it’s a comfort knowing that she could. Her daughter Rebecca Wilcox, who supports her mother’s decision (along with the rest of the family), confessed in an interview that the issue is fraught with difficulty. In reality they would face prosecution if they accompanied her or in any way assisted her to die.
The topic is an ethical minefield. While legal in Switzerland, assisted dying - or ‘assisted suicide’ as it is termed under law is banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A bill to legalise it was voted down in 2015. That means a maximum prison sentence of 14 years for those found guilty. In Scotland it is categorised under Euthanasia which is also illegal and prosecuted as murder or manslaughter.
While legal in Switzerland, assisted dying - or ‘assisted suicide’ as it is termed under law is banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Those in favour of assisted dying want people to have a dignified death, and to avoid undue suffering, especially in the case of terminal illness. Esther Rantzen pointed out that “if you watch someone you love having a bad death it obliterates all the good memories”. She added wryly that her dog had an especially good death; arguing that since we put down our beloved pets so that they won’t suffer, this should apply to humans too.
Rantzen is calling for MPs to debate the issue afresh and have a free vote in Parliament; saying “it’s important that the law catches up with what people want”. But those against it state that legalising it would enable vulnerable people to be taken advantage of.
Read more on dealing with death here
Our rule of law in the UK upholds the uniqueness and sanctity of human life, and is strongly underpinned by Judaeo-Christian principles. Asked whether facing death had led her to revisit the Jewish faith she was raised in, Rantzen skirted the question. For those of us who believe, and who hold that humans are created in the image of God, suffering is never without meaning.
Jesus himself, the son of God suffered a horrible death, and afterwards was resurrected to eternal life. Christians recognise that a good death (and a good life) may include pain and hardship but that these serve an ultimate purpose - we are promised the grace to endure right to the end. So there is no loss of dignity in our demise. In fact surrendering to it may be the most dignified thing we can do: because we are in the hands of a merciful and loving God who dignifies our lives, and our deaths, within the context of eternity.