What would any of us reply, if we were asked by an elderly relative facing a terrible, increasing infirmity whether we would agree to assist them to die rather than endure a terminal illness in pain and indignity? Such a question would be very difficult to deal with, but surely one's instinct - indeed, one's conscience - would direct us to put the wishes of the sufferer first. A YouGov poll in today's Telegraph suggests that most people in the UK agree. Three quarters of respondents said the law should be changed to allow the act of assisted suicide, which at present carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Four fifths said that even if the law was not amended, the prosecution should stay its hand in such circumstances.
The issue is very much of the moment after the recent cases of Kay Gilderdale and Frances Inglis. Given the lack of real clarity over the courts' opposite verdicts on these two women, the proposal by Sir Terry Pratchett for "euthanasia tribunals" to be set up appears a humane and sensible one. The author, who has Alzheimer's, is due to give a lecture to the Royal College of Physicians tonight in which he will say: "If I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice."
I found the subject vivid in my mind last summer, when the distinguished conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife chose to die at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. Sir Edward was 85 and Lady Downes was 74, and both had very serious health problems. I not only had happy memories of going to concerts conducted by Sir Edward, but was in the same house at school as his son, Caractacus. A much-liked boy, and a talented musician himself, I remember "Crac", as we all called him, as a kindly individual who always had time for a word with junior pupils. Who could blame him and his sister for witnessing the deaths their parents chose rather than trying to insist they continue lives they no longer wished to lead.
It's worth noting, however, that neither the Downes nor Pratchett had or have any formal religious beliefs. While the promise of the afterlife means
that death is not something members of the Abrahamic faiths should fear, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have strong prohibitions against suicide or euthanasia, and the current pope has been especially forceful on this, calling euthanasia "a false solution" and "evil". One might be able to find scriptures and verses that could be interpreted so liberally as to make this a grey area; but opponents would be armed with many more that make it clear that such acts were not permissible.
The only plea left, perhaps, is that at the time those holy books were written, no one - apart from the likes of Methuselah - was expected to reach the ages that are commonplace now. It's hard to reconcile a merciful God with a deity who demands humans endure years, even decades, of lives they don't consider worth living. Doesn't easing a painless exit seem to be the greater moral act?