Thomas Sutcliffe: A question of life and death (and God)

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The Independent Online

The thought of death induces panic in a lot of people - so it perhaps shouldn't be too surprising that the Daily Mail's coverage of a government proposal to allow people more control over their final hours should have been so hysterical.

"Every adult will be allowed to demand the right to die by simply ticking a box on a form" read the report - which seemed to suggest that the era of no-quibble euthanasia was upon us. All right. Put your head between your legs and breathe into this paper bag. Deep breaths now. That's it ... think of something soothing, like a tropical beach.

The profoundly uncontroversial and unshocking truth is this. People are going to be able to nominate someone to make decisions about whether they are resuscitated or "officiously kept alive" in the event that they can't speak for themselves. Such decisions are made every day in British hospitals - and frequently made in a muddled consensus between relatives and doctors, or by medical practitioners alone. All that is proposed is a way of clarifying the lines of communication with the comatose. The Mail piece would have been just as accurate (or inaccurate) if it had read "Every adult will be allowed to demand the right to live by simply ticking a box on a form" - though obviously that lacks a certain journalistic punch.

So no back door to euthanasia, then. But it is possible that this move might make the discussion of death a little more open and honest than it is at present - and that is grievously overdue. As a supporter of euthanasia, I think that it's the other side that's obfuscating - and the core of the confusion lies with the question of whether this is a religious issue or a philosophical one.

Take the recent letter opposing Lord Joffe's new Bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill, a multi-faith epistle signed by nine religious leaders. "Assisted suicide and euthanasia will radically change the social air we all breathe by severely undermining respect for life," it argued.

But the signatories didn't really mean this. What they meant was that it might severely undermine respect for God - by taking away his sole power of attorney in the matter. After all, religious authorities repeatedly argue, when faced with hard cases and grieving widows, that death can be merciful and a release. None of these consoling pieties are treated as if they diminish respect for life. So it can't be the case that euthanasia itself is disrespectful of life - since, by their own lights, God employs it all the time.

To his credit, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has come clean about this. Life, he wrote recently, is "a gift from God that we cannot treat as a possession of our own to keep or throw away".

That's honest ... but also madly infuriating to anyone who thinks they hold the title deeds to their own existence. It highlights the essential asymmetry between the arguments of opponents and proponents of euthanasia: the latter want the right to define dignity for themselves alone; the former the right to define it for everyone else as well.

Anyway, the religiously inclined have nothing to fear from the Government's proposal. They can leave both boxes empty so that God can choose where the tick goes. Personally, I'm glad that it is now possible for those of us with less faith in His wisdom to make a mark for ourselves.

A little bit of poetic licence...

"Twenty years ago everyone could name a Larkin or a Betjeman poem and had read them," says Daisy Goodwin, right, in an interview warning that poetry is going the way of morris-dancing. Ah yes, I remember those glory days. You couldn't get on a bus without encountering a heated discussion of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos, and The Sun's poetry editor competed fiercely to scoop the Mirror man with the new Ted Hughes.

It's nonsense, of course, but Goodwin's analogy is instructive. Compare Britain in 1600, say, and Britain now and you would probably find that there really has been a catastrophic long-term collapse in the popularity of morris-dancing. Do the same for poetry and I would hazard a guess that the readership, as a proportion of the population, has stayed pretty stable. What has happened in the interim is an explosive growth of other kinds of literature - from the sublime to the ridiculous. Maybe it would be better if people read Heaney rather than Heat - but I doubt very much that wild predictions of cultural meltdown are going to achieve it.

Problem: you are in charge of a radio station which is adored to the point of fanaticism by its regular listeners but, like any broadcasting organisation, wouldn't mind a few more. Unfortunately the publicity budget isn't all it could be.

Solution: announce that you are going to make a minor change to a section of the schedules that virtually nobody ever hears, and wait for the resulting explosion. Articles everywhere, questions asked in the House, and campaigns launched - all of which advertise the inviolable virtues of Radio 4.

I have no idea whether this is what Mark Damazer had in mind when he announced that the early morning medley "The UK Theme" was to go - but if so, it has worked beautifully.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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