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Opinion

A television drama examines illegal assisted suicide and raises questions about legalisation

ݮƵ 2024; 384 doi: (Published 06 February 2024) Cite this as: ݮƵ 2024;384:q308

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Assisted dying framed as true love

  1. Richard Smith, chair
  1. UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

As more and more countries legalise assisted suicide and the likelihood of its legalisation in Britain comes closer, Truelove, an enjoyable drama has examined illegal assisted suicide. The current confusing position in Britain (and many other countries) is that it’s legal to kill yourself but it’s illegal for anybody to assist you, no matter that they might do it out of kindness.

If you plan to watch the drama—and I recommend it—then you might want to stop reading here because I give away much of the plot in what follows.

The drama begins with a funeral. Old schoolfriends are gathered together for the funeral of a schoolfriend who has died horribly of cancer. (Opponents of legalising assisted suicide would point out that most people don’t die horribly; but most of the population knows of horrible deaths, one explanation for there being a majority in favour of legalising assisted suicide.) The five remaining friends gather together in the pub afterwards, drink too much, hold hands, and agree to help each other die if it proves necessary. They do so in the name of “truelove.”

The Bible says: “There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends.” Perhaps there is a greater love—that you would bear the pain of killing a friend.

Inevitably, one of the five, the bachelor, develops cancer: “the full English” of pancreas, liver, and spleen, as the doctor jokes. He asks his friends to honour their promise. Two of them, a retired and much decorated policewoman and a traumatised army veteran, step forward with reluctance. The bachelor has planned the perfect killing, which as anybody who watches the never-ending stream of crime dramas or reads whodunnits knows, is never perfect. The plan involves two small boats meeting in the Bristol Channel “well away from the shipping lanes.” The bachelor tricks his two friends by summoning them to a rehearsal and then announcing that it’s the real thing. In the excitement of the moment they throttle him and allow the boat to sink while they return ashore in the other boat.

The experience inevitably brings the two together, and we know almost from the beginning that the two are attracted to each other and have a history. Another form of true love. Both are traumatised, the policewoman less so after a lifetime of seeing all kinds of wickedness.

Then comes a call for them to assist another suicide, this time for the wife of a couple. She is dementing and can’t tolerate the idea of how it will progress. My mother, who spent a dozen years with little memory, dreaded being demented and advocated assisted suicide for people with dementia. It’s unlikely that any British law would allow assisted suicide for dementia, but it will probably come eventually. There are big problems to overcome of consent and who would decide when the time was right. In the drama the woman is in the early stages of dementia, clearly able to give consent, and wants to die then before the disease progresses.

The duo who have already killed are reluctant to repeat the experience, but the dementing woman, whom everybody loves, is insistent. Her husband is a doctor, who also has a perfect plan. He will organise the drugs but will be at a conference a hundred miles away when the duo stay with his wife as she takes the drugs. The retired policewoman, who seems comfortable with death, persuades the reluctant army veteran, that it would be an act of kindness to help the woman, and they do—with everybody having a hug before she takes the drugs and Leonard Cohen playing as she dies.

The dementing woman dies late at night, after her carer has left, and so the assisting duo don’t get home until very late. The husband of the retired policewoman has known all his married life that he was “second best” and now becomes sure that his wife must be having an affair with her love of all those years ago. He insists that she leaves their home, pushing her into the arms of the army veteran.

The biggest worry of those opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide is that assisted suicide becoming legal will make it easier for the wicked to get rid of those they don’t care for. It was inevitable that the drama would need to deal with this, and through a chance meeting of the retired policewoman with the dead woman’s GP and her subsequent questioning of the forensic pathologist she learns that the woman didn’t have dementia. Her doctor husband had been giving her drugs and convincing her she was demented. He has in effect murdered her, but it was the helpful duo not he who were there when she died.

The retired policewoman is not the only one to suspect that the dead woman did not have dementia. An ambitious young policewoman has her own suspicions and has investigated the death not only of the woman but also of the man who died at sea. She’s convinced herself that the old schoolfriends formed a pact to help each other die. She shares her suspicions and evidence with her superiors, who, as we’ve come to expect, are unable to believe that the retired policewoman could do such a thing. They dismiss the young woman’s suspicions and tell her to take time off.

From there everything unravels and descends into chaos. I found the last episode—with some long, overdramatic speeches—unconvincing, but my wife found it all engaging and plausible.

The drama wasn’t casting a judgement on the legalisation of assisted suicide, but all those watching it would have had the possible legalisation in their minds. The drama would, I think, have appealed more to those opposed to legalisation as we never saw anybody dying badly but we did see the discomfort of those who had assisted people to die and the wickedness of a doctor who used assisted suicide to murder his wife. I doubt, however, that this drama will electrify the debate around assisted suicide in the way that a recent television drama shot to the top of the political agenda a post office scandal that had been largely neglected for decades. But Truelove did show how drama can both entertain us and help our thinking at the same time.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not peer reviewed.