Joan Smith: Kill off this tasteless euthanasia circus

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The Independent Online

In principle, I am sympathetic to people who want to legalise voluntary euthanasia. No matter how well doctors look after terminally ill patients, there will always be cases like that of Diane Pretty, who fears her husband will be prosecuted if he assists her to commit suicide.

Mrs Pretty suffers from motor neurone disease and her desire to end her life when she chooses, and with dignity, is understandable; there is clearly a need for a legal mechanism that would allow people in her situation to request help in dying if they are too physically impaired to do it themselves. Having said that, I cannot help feeling queasy about the voluntary euthanasia industry – organisations and individuals dedicated to helping other people, often complete strangers, shuffle off this mortal coil.

Some of them have macabre names like Exit and the Hemlock Society, and there is a rash of websites where you can find instructions on how to commit suicide. One offers a neat little "right to die" badge that can be ordered online. Another provides a list of "do-it-yourself" books on hastening death. "They are intended to guide terminally ill individuals whose quality of life has shrunk to nothing," the site declares. "They are not intended to help depressed people commit suicide." But there is no way of making sure that unhappy teenagers or depressed adults take notice of this pious warning.

The best-known of these books is Final Exit by Derek Humphry, a former Sunday Times journalist who now lives in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal under certain conditions. It discusses the practicalities of "self-deliverance and assisted suicide for the dying" and is "one of the most popular books ordered by visitors to this website". Humphry has also made an appearance, in a less benevolent light, on a rival website. "Protect your loved ones from February's anti-Christ of the month, Derek Humphry," the hysterical home page declared. It went on to berate him as a "scumbag" – oh, the joys of reasoned debate – and it will not come as a surprise to learn that the people who employ this kind of language are Christian fundamentalists from the United States, fanatical opponents of abortion as well as assisted suicide.

At the same time, it is hard not to conclude that some euthanasia enthusiasts play into their hands, revealing an obsessiveness on the subject that verges on necrophilia. The most famous is an American doctor called Jack Kevorkian, who acquired the nickname "Dr Death" from his habit of travelling round the country helping people to die. Kevorkian is currently serving a prison sentence in Michigan for murder, after administering a lethal injection to a 52-year-old man on national television and daring the authorities to stop his crusade. They did.

Kevorkian is believed to have supervised more than a hundred suicides, yet an analysis of 69 of the cases by a team at the University of South Florida concluded that three-quarters were not terminally ill and five showed no evidence of any physical disease. Kevorkian is also the author of a book on "rational self-deliverance", which apparently includes "much interesting historical detail on methods of capital punishment, related with colour and flair". But his literary efforts pale by comparison with those of Humphry, who has written seven books on various aspects of euthanasia, beginning in 1978 with Jean's Way, an account of his role in assisting the suicide of his terminally ill first wife. That book was received sympathetically but eyebrows were raised when his second wife, Ann, also committed suicide in 1991.

Another book, Deadly Compassion by Rita Marker – a longstanding opponent of euthanasia who befriended Ann Humphry at the end of her life – contained a dramatic allegation that Humphry encouraged his wife to kill herself when she was diagnosed with cancer. It also criticised his involvement in the assisted suicide of Ann's parents. None of this seems to have diminished Humphry's enthusiasm for voluntary euthanasia; last year he courted controversy in a television documentary that told viewers in Oregon how to crush a lethal dose of drugs, mix it with yoghurt or apple sauce, and wash it down with vodka. "I do add information on how to take your life with a plastic bag if you can't get the drugs," he added helpfully. The programme is available on video, via his website, for people who missed it.

This tasteless circus does not invalidate the arguments for legalising voluntary euthanasia, but it highlights the need for the most stringent safeguards. I don't think the task of assisting the terminally ill to commit suicide should fall on friends and relatives, whose emotional involvement makes it too much of a burden, while there is always a risk of unscrupulous people putting undue pressure on someone who is elderly or depressed. Any system of voluntary euthanasia needs to be in the hands of health professionals, supervised by the courts, and a million miles away from the creepy campaigners it seems to attract.

Mugged ­ by the racist 'Sun'

The Sun has once again been doing its best to stir up animosity towards foreigners, as if immigrants to this country do not have enough to contend with. Last week it told the story of an Essex woman who has been informed by three local hospitals that they may not be able to cope when she gives birth to quadruplets, contrasting her treatment with that of a Libyan mother who gave birth to sextuplets in a British hospital. The Essex woman has been "snubbed by three NHS hospitals ... yet a Libyan gets £500,000 care", the paper raged. Inside there was a photograph of "pregnant Michelle" and her cab-driver husband, Dave. "I've lived here all my days, paid my taxes and National Insurance – and this is what I get in return," Dave complained. "Mugs like me are having to pay medical bills for some bloke who's just arrived in this country and yet I can't even find a hospital where my own children can be born. It's sickening."

Quite clearly, it is not the fault of the Libyan couple if there are better NHS maternity facilities in Newcastle, where the husband is doing a course at a local university, than in Essex. The suggestion of favouritism towards them is the most blatant racism, for which all concerned should hang their heads in shame; it is actually the popularity of techniques such as IVF, which have resulted in many more multiple births, that is causing a crisis in hospitals across the country. And listen to this detail: Dave already has three children from an earlier marriage, aged 18, 13 and nine, and the quadruplets his wife is expecting are the result of fertility treatment. Mugs like me, in other words, are having to pay medical bills for some selfish bloke to have seven children looked after by the NHS.

Misogyny rules OK?

The actor Steven Berkoff, left, who is facing a £500,000 damages claim from a woman who alleges she was raped and racially abused by him, says he has undergone a transformation. "I used to be a feminist," he told the Edinburgh Evening News. "Now I'm a misogynist." If Berkoff understands the meaning of the word – and, as a writer himself, I assume he does – it hardly seems something to boast about. Or is it OK now to admit to hating half the human race?