May 29, 2024

Stephen Hawking and assisted suicide

Stephen Hawking is in the news this week (see article below). A documentary has just been released on the life of the 71-year-old cosmologist timed to coincide with the release of his autobiography, My Brief History. And the BBC has done a probing interview with him. In it a journalist sought his opinion on assisted suicide. He endorsed it, saying, “We don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?”

Before I take issue with Professor Hawking, I must say how much I admire him. The promo for the documentary is intensely moving. When you see this silent, wheelchair-bound figure being ushered through applauding crowds, the flashes on their cameras lighting up the room like flares, you see how much people treasure his bravery, his humour, and his indomitable sense of adventure. In 2007 a space entrepreneur took him on a parabolic flight in a Boeing 727 so that he could experience Zero-G. His smile as he floated in mid-air was as innocent and beautiful as a child’s.

It might seem grotesque, but he has also appeared as a character on The Simpsons and in a hilarious instalment of Epic Rap Battles of History with Albert Einstein. Instead of silencing him, his disability has made him one of the iconic figures of our age.

But back to his views on bioethics. Hawking is happy to endorse assisted suicide for others. Why not himself? Who knows, really? Beneath his public persona he is a complex and private person, and, like most of us, no saint. But he has a rich network of family, friends and colleagues for whom his life is a precious treasure. These are often missing in the lives of people who do ask for assisted suicide. Instead of legislating to allow people to end their miserable lives, what Hawking’s example suggests is that we should seek to end their misery. More family, more friendship, more care, more admiration: that is what they need, not a needle.  


Michael Cook
A great brain for physics, not for ethics.