A short time ago I had to insist to a not very youthful journalist that during my early lifetime anyone who attempted to commit suicide and failed would face a criminal charge and be locked up, presumably to show them life was wonderful and thoroughly worth living.Terry Pratchet (BBC/KEO Films)
Terry Pratchet (BBC / KEO Films)

It would be nice to think that in the not too distant future someone will be incredulous when told that a British citizen stricken with a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, and yet nevertheless still quite compos mentis, would have to go all the way to another country to die. They would ask for an explanation, and I’d be damned if I could think of one. Three decent, sedate and civilised European countries already allow physician-assisted suicide and yet, despite the fact that every indication is that British people understand and are in favour of assisted dying, if properly conducted, the government consistently turns its back on it. A year ago I was told by a cabinet minister that it would never happen in Britain and I suggested that this was a strange thing to say in a democracy and got a black look for my pains.

Initially, I thought the opposition was largely due to a certain amount of curdled Christianity. Despite the fact that there is no scriptural objection, Christian opposition came about in the 14th century when, because of religious wars and the Black Death, people were committing suicide on the basis that, well, as this world was now so dreadfully unpleasant, maybe it would be a good idea to make an attempt on heaven. Authority objected otherwise. Who would milk the cows? Who would fight the wars? People couldn’t be allowed to slope off like that. They had to stay and face their just punishment for being born.

Even now I detect some echoes of that frame of mind; that affliction is somehow a penance for an unknown transgression. To hell with that! Every time the question of assisted dying is broached in this country there is a choreographed outcry, suggested overtones of Nazism and, of course, the murder of grandmothers for their money. And the perpetrators get away with it because the British have a certain tradition of bullying from the top down. “The common people are stupid and we who know better must make the decisions for them.”

Well, the common people are not stupid. They might watch god-awfully stupid reality TV and make a lot of noise in football grounds and they don’t understand, perhaps, the politics of Trident, but they are very clever about the politics of blood and bone and pain and suffering. They understand about compassion and, like my father, they are nothing if not practical about these things. He was incurably ill and saw no reason, given the absence of the hope of any cure, why he shouldn’t forgo any more suffering and head straight for the door.

And people also understand that, especially if you don’t have much money, long-term care in the UK can be somewhat problematical at best. And yet the government sits there like an ancient Pope, hoping that it will all go away. ■

In brief

1961 Under the 1961 Suicide Act, it is a criminal offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales, and those doing so risk a jail sentence of up to 14 years. Scottish law does not cover the matter specifically, although assisting suicide can constitute an offence under homicide law.

2002 Since 2002, over 160 Britons have travelled to Switzerland to seek assisted suicide at Dignitas.

2006 An Assisted Dying Bill, tabled by Lord Joffe, was defeated in the House of Lords by 148 votes to 100.

2009 The director of public prosecutions in England and Wales, seeking to clarify the law, issued new guidelines for deciding whether to prosecute those involved in assisted suicide cases. Factors include whether the person assisting suicide stood to gain financially, whether the person wanting to die was competent to make the decision, and whether they had been pressured into doing so.

2010 In December 2010, an End of Life Assistance Bill tabled by independent member of the Scottish Parliament Margo MacDonald was defeated by MSPs. She is planning to introduce another bill following her re-election in May.

2011 In a referendum in May 2011, 78 per cent of voters in the Zurich area rejected a ban on foreigners committing assisted suicide in Switzerland. A Commission on Assisted Dying, hosted by the think-tank Demos and chaired by Lord Falconer, will report its findings later this year.

Groups campaigning for a change in the law include Dignity in Dying, the British Humanist Association, the Humanist Society of Scotland and the National Secular Society. Prominent supporters include Patricia Hewitt, Patrick Stewart, Ian McEwan, Jo Brand and Brenda Fricker.