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Physicist Stephen Hawking says he would consider assisted suicide

Stephen Hawking said he can get ‘‘very lonely’’ because some are afraid to talk to him or don’t wait for his answer.
Stephen Hawking said he can get ‘‘very lonely’’ because some are afraid to talk to him or don’t wait for his answer.(Eric Reed/Associated Press/file 2013)

LONDON — Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking would consider assisted suicide if he thought he had become a burden to those around him or if he had nothing more to contribute to science, he says.

Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease and has used a wheelchair since the 1960s, also said he sometimes gets ‘‘very lonely’’ because people can be afraid to talk to him or can’t listen to him answer.

Hawking’s illness, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has slowly paralyzed him over the decades. He now communicates using a single cheek muscle through a speech synthesizer.

Hawking, 73, made his comments in an interview for a new program for the British Broadcasting Corp., the Times of London newspaper reported Thursday.

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‘‘To keep someone alive against their wishes is the ultimate indignity,’’ Hawking said in the interview. The physicist, whose best-selling book, ‘‘A Brief History of Time,’’ spent 237 weeks on the British Sunday Times bestseller list, used to oppose assisted suicide, but he said he has changed his mind.

‘‘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,’’ he said in the interview. He added, however, that at the moment, he still had scientific contributions to make. ‘‘I am damned if I’m going to die before I have unraveled more of the universe,’’ he said.

One of Hawking’s best-known scientific theories is the notion that black holes emit radiation, which has become known as Hawking radiation. He has been the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s most prestigious civilian award.

The scientist, who has traveled widely, has been married twice and has three children. His early life — he was told at the age of 21 while studying at Oxford University that he had only two years to live — was depicted in the 2014 autobiographical film, ‘‘The Theory of Everything.’’ Despite his disabilities, and his difficult communication style, Hawking is known as a man with a serious sense of humor.

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He told the BBC that he was not in pain but suffers from discomfort because he cannot adjust his own position in his wheelchair. The interviewer, Dara O Briain, who has a degree in theoretical physics, praised Hawking for his ‘‘impressively honest answers, even to the most direct questions.’’

Asked by O Briain if he ever gets lonely, Hawking answered: ‘‘At times I get very lonely because people are afraid to talk to me or don’t wait for me to write a response. I’m shy and tired at times. I find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know.’’ The scientist is currently testing a more sophisticated communication method.

It is illegal in Britain to help people end their lives. Britons who wish to do so often travel to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich. So far, no one has been prosecuted for helping someone end his or her life there.

A bill in Britain’s House of Lords has been presented to change the law to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patents who have six months or less to live.