There has been no progress in affording more rights to those wishing to end their lives since 2015. The UK is lagging behind and risks losing its compassionate moorings, argues Donald Forbes.

Amid competing demands for civil rights, a ladder of priorities is inevitable. We can only do so much at any one time. On which rung does assisted dying stand? Is it a moral imperative like sexual and racial equality which are accepted as basic objectives in liberal societies?

British law is the most backward in the West with regard to the end of life. While Spain has become the fourth EU country to legalise euthanasia, other countries increasingly permit assisted suicide under strict safeguards. The UK continues to punish both despite high profile cases which have shown the urgency of a more humanitarian approach to death.

There is some political support for reform in the UK but the Government is fearful of tackling an issue which it thinks would be more controversial than gay marriage and as divisive as abortion. In fact, polling consistently indicates that most voters in Britain and other countries are favourable.

A properly framed law would turn from the negative view of taking of one's own life, or being helped to do so, towards treating it positively. We should accept assisted dying as a humanitarian act that ensures dignity and freedom from anxiety for patients and their families.

Opposition to assisted dying comes from the healthy who are attached to their lives. They fail to take into account the changed relationship with death that the old, the terminally ill or the incapacitated know.

There is a world of difference between assisted dying as a willed and thoughtful choice, shared and absorbed with family and friends, and the desperate act of suicide which leaves distress and guilt in its wake; bewildered parents or spouses wondering why the individual did that, was it our fault?

To most of us, life is so precious that we are literally incapable of comprehending why anyone would want to die before their time. The idea of death as something welcome is terra incognito.

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It should not be if considered rationally. Who could not have sympathised ardently with Tony Nicklinson who was denied the right to die in a widely publicised court battle. In his incapacitated state, he was unable to kill himself and the law prevented his family from helping him at the risk of up to 14 years imprisonment. Eventually he starved himself to death.

It is hard to imagine his suffering and that of his family during this ordeal. Not only was it denial of dignity to a fellow human, it should have prompted us to reconsider the nature of death unhampered by religious teaching that life is God's gift which only He can take away.

Despite our Christian culture, modern Britain is a secular country in which every person's life belongs to them alone. The state must protect life, including its end, but it should not stand in the way of a considered personal decision to die.

Parliament last looked at assisted suicide in 2015. However, Henry Marsh, a retired neuro-surgeon who has incurable prostate cancer, has written to justice minister, Robert Buckland, asking for an inquiry he hopes will lead to a law change. He claims the support of 50 MPs and  Lords and is patron of a group called 'My Care, My Decision'.

Marsh previously opposed assisted death. He told the Guardian: "Having spent a lifetime operating on people with cancer, the prospect of dying slowly from it myself fills me with dread. Despite the best efforts of palliative medicine, I know that dying from cancer can still be a very horrible business – for both patient and family, despite what the opponents of assisted dying claim."

A neighbour of mine who is a healthy 78 but has suffered from heart disease for 20 years, fears loss of control. He expects his heart will eventually kill him but worries modern cardiac medicine will keep him alive past the stage where his mind deteriorates. The thought of ending up senile in an old people's home when he would rather be dead haunts him.

Changes to UK law are opposed by the 'Care Not Killing' alliance that proposes improved palliative care for the terminally ill which Marsh maintains isn't enough. Alliance supporters warn that assisted suicide would put vulnerable people under pressure to end their lives. It's not a concern that can be ignored.

Supporters of assisted suicide need to admit the impossibility of writing a law that would not be abused in the same way that the terms of the original abortion bill have been abused. For example, the risk exists that some would-be heritors might bully elderly relatives into opting for a premature death. It would be up to Parliament to ensure that an assisted suicide law is as foolproof as possible.

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