Martin Amis has called for “euthanasia booths” on every street corner. “There should be a way out for rational people,” he told the Sunday Times Magazine.

Sir Terry Pratchett, another bestselling author, who himself has early Alzheimer’s, campaigned in a recent lecture for the right to end life with medical assistance. He has offered to be a “test case” before a “euthanasia tribunal”, saying that no one should stand in the way of someone who has decided to die. “The tribunal would be acting for the good of society as well as that of the applicant,” he said.

There have been several cases brought to court in relation to assisted suicide. At the start of the year, Frances Inglis was found guilty of murder after administering a fatal dose of opiate to her brain-damaged son. The judge said there was “no concept in law of mercy killing” and that it was still a killing “no matter how kind the intention”. However, in another case, Kay Gilderdale was cleared of murdering her daughter, who was suffering from myalgic encephalitis (chronic fatigue syndrome).

The broadcaster Ray Gosling, meanwhile, is on bail after admitting the suffocation 20 years ago of a lover suffering from an Aids-related illness.

The difference in outcomes between the Inglis and the Gilderdale cases has been said to be due to the competence of those who were killed. Inglis’s son was unable to communicate, whereas Gilderdale’s daughter had apparently expressed her wish to die. But people like Pratchett are asking the law for more: the right to seek an end to life, with medical assistance.

I have been taken aback by the number of doctors who seem keen to embrace euthanasia as part of their duty. Official guidance on this matter would probably be followed erratically, just as it is in other problematic areas, such as the interpretation of abortion law, or even antibiotic prescribing.

Consider an elderly gentleman, demented and taking scant fluid by mouth, who now has what could be a terminal event, pneumonia. To me it will usually be a kindness to treat the symptoms and expect this to be the end of life. If morphine would hasten death but provide needed pain relief, so be it. Others, however, may see this as a doctor plying “mercy” by accelerating death. The moral position to me is clear – where treatment is futile, the priority should be to relieve distress.

If the use of doctors to end life becomes legal, then the ethically correct position of palliation becomes muddied with active killing. Easing a passage out of the world is a doctor’s duty, but the involvement of doctors in euthanasia will undermine what should be good medical care.

Margaret McCartney is a GP in Glasgow
margaret.mccartney@ft.com

Go to Margaret McCartney’s blog at www.ft.com/healthblog
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