Stephen Hawking has said he would consider ending his own life if he became a burden to others or if he had “nothing more to contribute”.
But the physicist and cosmologist told a forthcoming BBC programme he knows he has much more scientific work to do, despite his advanced motor neurone disease.
“To keep someone alive against their wishes is the ultimate indignity,” Hawking, 73, told his interviewer, the comedian Dara O’Briain. “I would consider assisted suicide only if I were in great pain or felt I had nothing more to contribute but was just a burden to those around me.”
O’Briain, who himself has a degree in theoretical physics, said Hawking would give “impressively honest answers” in the programme, according to the Telegraph.
It is not the first time Hawking has voiced support for assisted suicide – in 2014, he revealed in a BBC interview how he had attempted to die after a mid-1980s tracheostomy operation. “I briefly tried to commit suicide by not breathing,” he said. “However, the reflex to breathe was too strong.”
Hawking, who is the director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, has said those who help their loved ones who want to die should be immune from prosecution.
But he has also said he believes safeguards should ensure a person genuinely wishes to die, pointing to a famous incident in his own life. In 1985, when suffering complications from pneumonia, his then-wife, Jane, refused to turn off his life support machine. Hawking recovered and went on to complete his critically and popularly acclaimed book A Brief History of Time.
In his forthcoming BBC interview, Hawking said he felt he had many more discoveries to make and theories to produce. “I am damned if I’m going to die before I have unravelled more of the universe,” he said.
“I am damned if I’m going to die before I have unravelled more of the universe.”
The scientist expressed regret at not being able to easily communicate, with peers and fans, who he said are often nervous of approaching him or making conversation.
“At times I get very lonely because people are afraid to talk to me or don’t wait for me to write a response,” he said. “I’m shy and tired at times. I find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know.”
Hawking, who was told aged 21 he would have just two years to live and has been in a wheelchair since the late 1960s, said he still felt frustrated by his loss of movement. “I would like to be able to swim again,” he said. “When my children were young, I missed not being able to play with them physically.”
It is currently still a criminal offence in the UK to assist someone to take their own life but 2010 guidance from the Department of Public Prosecutions makes it unlikely for friends and family to be prosecuted.
Professor Hawking’s interview will be shown on BBC 1, on June 16, 2015.