The legalization of euthanasia is one of deep controversy, but its demand is growing. Death needs to be considered more rationally, and the options that come with it, argues Donald Forbes.

Euthanasia will become legal in Britain. There will be many hurdles, and no one knows exactly when and in what form. But, like the abolition of hanging and legalised abortion – both divisive ethical challenges in their day – the demand for euthanasia will become irresistible.

Assisted suicide revolves around the question of the sanctity of life, on which parliament holds contradictory positions. Parliament abolished hanging to spare the lives of criminals. Then it legalised abortion, denying the unborn the right to life. This is ethically incoherent. MPs gave a different answer to the same question – the sacrosanctity of life.

Terrified of the subject, politicians skirt it. But instead of fleeing euthanasia, we need to consider whether our opposition to ending life prematurely is really just another way of fearing death.

Some people do want to die and commit suicide. Others want to die but are obliged to live because they are physically incapable of committing suicide without the help that our laws forbid. This is applicable to patients who are conscious, not those who vegetate on life support.

There have been cases in countries where euthanasia is forbidden, where irredeemably incapacitated patients of sound mind have been refused the right to die. Without denying the difficulty of the ethics, the only appropriate words for this are that it is a terrible inhumanity. What happened to Tony Nicklinson was cruel beyond belief.

New Zealanders, our close cultural kin, have just voted overwhelmingly to allow terminally ill people the right to choose death rather than suffer unnecessarily – a right, by the way, gladly granted to pets we love. There is probably a similar perception latent among us here in the UK that is suppressed by the anti-euthanasia lobby.

What has been legalised in New Zealand is limited, but will no doubt subsequently be expanded in scope. Once a previously unthinkable step has been taken, others follow because the logic becomes inescapable. This is why the Anti's fight the first step so hard.

The fact is that each of us has the right to die at a time of our own choosing because our life is ours, immutably our personal property. Your life does not belong to God, the government or anyone else. The issue of assisted death is a legal process.

Wishing to die because one is old and does not want to become a burden is not shocking. It is an example of selflessness and independence. Provided it is voluntary, assisted suicide is an act of generosity bordering on the sublime.

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When the person wishing to die is physically incapable of acting alone, assisted suicide is truly humanitarian.

Legal assisted suicide would mean fewer solo suicides and possibly fewer deaths if desperate people held off knowing the recourse was there. Crucially, it would remove the fear of a failed suicide, risking being left alive and physically damaged.

Personally, I've never in 60 years have I wanted to take my own life. Being in reasonably good health, I am content to see things out naturally as things stand. What I fear is not death but senility. I would welcome the legal right to die painlessly in my own time before that happens to me.

I do not mean that ending life is not momentous and I believe the law must protect the vulnerable from impatient heritors for one thing. We need a euthanasia law with adequate safeguards against abuse.

Imposed death already exists – the non-resuscitation policy in hospitals is euthanasia without consent. Doctors let lives which could be prolonged by modern treatments slip away every day using their judgement.

Both sides in the argument claim the moral high ground instead of sharing it. Anti's cherry pick the headline cases, such as in Holland, where sick children have opted for euthanasia. They leave out the more mundane cases where people are just tired of lie, and to oppose them is to deny that some psychological conditions are as serious and intolerable as physical illness.

A Dutch friend assures me that euthanasia is much harder to obtain in Holland than Anti's claim. Even so, supporters of euthanasia must admit that, no law being perfect, abuses will take place.

But if we refused to adapt our laws because we fear the possibility of abuse, we would never change anything. The question is whether a euthanasia law does more good than not, whether it provides compassion?

Parliament's solution is the one adopted for the abolition of capital punishment which MP's suspended for a trial period in 1965, before abolishing it completely in 1969. Parliament could pass a temporary euthanasia law with a sunset clause, renewable every five years. This would give us time to assess the law in practice, providing the option to retract it.

There have been times when suicide was considered honorable: Socrates drinking his hemlock in deference to the will of the people; the defeated general falling on his sword because he had failed the nation; the captain going down with his ship.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote in his epistles that life should be seen as a journey toward death and welcomed rather than feared; a man who had accomplished his life's work had no further reason to live; death was an apotheosis that should be considered and accepted as a possibility of each day. We can't all be Seneca, but we can consider death more rationally than we do.

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