DR MAX PEMBERTON: We mustn't dodge issue of assisted dying any longer

DR MAX PEMBERTON: We mustn’t dodge issue of assisted dying any longer

  • Dr Max Pemberton admitted that he has seen many people die during his career
  • He explained that under certain conditions, he would choose to take his own life
  • Brain surgeon Henry Marsh is calling for an urgent inquiry into assisted dying
  • Dr Max argued that politicians and doctors have been dodging the issue in UK

During my career, I have seen many people die and I know there are some ways I could simply not bear. 

There are certain conditions that, if I was diagnosed with them, I would choose to take my own life rather than suffer what I consider torture. The idea of slowly choking to death because I am losing the ability to swallow, for example.

And the thought of being unable to move chills me — and many others, I think — to the core. Every doctor has stories of patients that make you question whether doctors should be able to step in and end people’s lives when they really want it.

Now Henry Marsh, leading brain surgeon and bestselling author, is calling for an urgent inquiry into assisted dying. 

He has revealed that, age 71, he has advanced prostate cancer and argues that the law insists he must suffer and that politicians have ‘shown a striking lack of compassion by ducking this issue for too long’.

Dr Max Pemberton said he has seen many people die during his career and said he was once asked to see a woman in her 40s after she had expressed her wish to die (stock image)

There’s no doubt the issue is complex, but I agree politicians and doctors have dodged the issue.

We point to the fact people can travel to Dignitas in Switzerland, but that is a fudge — it’s ethical Nimbyism and fails to take into account that many people who would want to use it are too disabled to go.

For years I worked in an inner-city hospital, and as a psychiatrist I was often called by my medical or surgical colleagues to patients they had who were suicidal or asking to die.

My job was to assess if they had a mental illness. But many of the patients I saw had terminal illnesses and wanted a quick, painless death rather than the slow, drawn-out death they knew they faced.

I remember being called to see a patient in her late 40s. Fourteen years ago she had been in a car crash and had horrific injuries. 

She had a bleed into her brain which left her paralysed and unable to care for herself and was now reliant on carers for even the most basic tasks.

Because of her difficulties swallowing, she experienced choking fits and the damage to her brain had meant she had frequent seizures.

Overnight, she went from being a graphic designer with a social life, independent and free, to being cocooned inside a body which refused to move or function properly. 

Dr Max (pictured) admitted that under certain conditions he would choose to take his own life, and said politicians and doctors have been dodging the issue of assisted dying

She had come into hospital after developing a chest infection, but had repeatedly expressed the wish to die, so I was asked to see her.

Her speech was slurred, but she was eloquent in saying why she wanted to die. If she was able to, she’d have killed herself a long time ago as, for her, life was intolerable and had ceased to have any meaning.

Of course, there will be people who argue that she can find meaning and worth in her life, that she can still contribute to society; that life is a gift in whatever form it takes and she should learn to celebrate this rather than wish to obliterate it.

Those that oppose assisted dying often claim that, with advances in medicine, we are better at pain management, while palliative care means patients do not have to suffer.

But to say pain control is the determining factor in someone’s quality of life is wrong. This reduces and belittles the hu-man condition.

The fact that controlling pain is not always straight forward, especially without overdosing the patient, is a moot point here. It is the emotional pain, for which no analgesia exists, that is often the deciding factor in people wishing to die in medical cases.

Antidepressants won’t make you walk again. Talking therapies can’t bring back your old life. There is no analgesia that can deaden the sense of loss, of powerlessness and helplessness; the frustration, the indignity.

Certainly many people with debilitating and terminal conditions lead fulfilling and meaningful lives but, equally, there are those who do not and wish to take control of their life by ending it.

Who am I to say that this woman’s life is worth living? That the psychological pain she experiences as a result of her present situation is tolerable?

By all means argue that assisted suicides are open to abuse. But do not propose to know what it feels like to lie in a bed, staring at the ceiling day in and day out, being turned by carers as they wash you and change your sheets, longing for the life you had but which now is out of reach.

Don’t tell me that doesn’t hurt. Don’t tell me doctors can control that sort of pain.

With my head, I know there are serious risks to assisted dying; that it could be misused or people may feel pressured and coerced into it.

But with my heart, I think of all the countless patients I have seen, where I have stood and thought how, if this were me, I’d be longing for someone to help me end my life.

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t at least acknowledge this. 


Natural England has made the first update to the Countryside Code in more than a decade and included the suggestion visitors should smile. Well, this got me beaming for sure.

What a wonderful thing to encourage people to do while on their country walk.

Because of the need to wear masks, the pandemic has robbed us of a stranger’s smile. It’s one of life’s little pleasures. As we cannot do this in shops, it’s all the more important to make the effort when we’re outside. Smiling is the first expression we learn to recognise as babies.

Before anger or fear, we notice happiness. It’s hardwired into our brains to seek it out. It boosts us when someone smiles at us and the person smiling gets a boost, too — it’s one human reaching out to another, which is what we need in these times.


The Arrigo Programme

Dr Max recommended The Arrigo Programme, which is run by psychotherapist Fiona Arrigo (pictured) and was designed with the psychological pressure of the past year in mind

This programme of life-affirming retreats in rural Somerset, run by psychotherapist Fiona Arrigo, was designed with the psychological pressure of the past year in mind. 

It includes a retreat focused on grief for those who have lost someone, as well as helping those who have struggled with the isolation and emotional stresses of lockdown.


In the wake of the revelations around ‘rape culture’ in schools, it’s been suggested that these institutions should be responsible for how boys behave. Of course not.

We can’t allow the focus to be taken off the real issue by blaming schools or teachers.

We need to face one fact: is it any surprise some boys behave like this when they are bombarded with pornography?

My issue is not the sex — after all, people have watched others get intimate since the dawn of time — but the violence.

This is what no one talks about. Many parents are unaware of what their children are exposed to. I think every parent should see the porn available to their children. 

We need to challenge the extreme and misogynistic images and talk frankly with young boys. But the first step is parents educating themselves.

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