There is no illness more terrifying than Motor Neurone Disease. It is the greatest stinker in the book of medical symptoms.
Horrible killers such as cancer and heart disease are now not as hopeless as they used to be, because so much progress has been made in recent years. People can make good recoveries from cancer, and heart treatment has been revolutionised. But MND is almost unbearable to think about.
It starts with a completely inconsequential weakness in the arm or leg; in one case I encountered, a healthy 40 year old man was diagnosed with MND after he had twisted his ankle and the injury had mysteriously failed to heal.
And gradually, the disease paralyses and deforms the victim completely. Towards the end, MND patients can suffer from an appalling affliction known as "lockedin syndrome", when they literally cannot move a muscle, and yet, inside, their mind and sensibility are as clear as ever. It is like being buried alive.
Most people now know about the case of Diane Pretty, the 43 year old woman from Luton in Bedfordshire who went to the European Court of Human Rights over her terminal MND. Mrs Pretty wished the Court to rule that her human rights must include the right to commit suicide, with the assistance of her husband. The European Court has just turned down her plea, as British courts have previously.
With several such cases in mind — of patients requesting a choice of death — I was invited to write an article for the Daily Mail opposing euthanasia, which I did. I cannot accept the view that it is right to commit suicide. It is understandable, yes. If pushed to the limit, I can see how I might consider it myself, justas in certain cases, I can see how one might carry out a mercy killing.
It was once put to me by an old soldier that when you see a comrade writhing in mortal pain on the battlefield, your most compassionate instinct is to draw your revolver and put him out of his misery. I can accept that: just as I can accept an ambiguity whereby a doctor increases the morphine dose he knows is likely to end the patient's life. But the direct and deliberate act of self-killing is distressing, not just for its principle, but also for its effect on the common good. There is such a thing as society, and every act we take influences the community around us.
I wrote this article as sensitively as I could — a couple of months ago now — yet it transpired that I had offended. Mr Phil Such is a former sports journalist who, himself, has terminal MND, and he feels quite passionately that he should be allowed to take his own life, like Diane Pretty. "How could you hurt people with terminal illness so much, Mary?" he asked. "Don't you realise how cruel it is to condemn patients to the torture of the final phases of this illness?" He said my article had increased the suffering of himself, and other people in his situation.
He also upbraided me for holding out hopes of a cure. I had interviewed a very brilliant young doctor at the Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, where they are doing extensive research in MND, and this medic had looked forward to the day when there would be a breakthrough.
The Human Genome Project could prove to be helpful.
Phil said it was wicked to mention the word cure, when no such thing existed.
He asked me not to write articles like this in the future. Phil's intervention troubled my conscience, and his condition was never far from my thoughts over the following weeks.
I have thought and thought about all this, and even though I can join Phil in hoping that he will be delivered from the torment of his illness, still, I cannot bring myself to affirm that euthanasia is right.
Yet the case has marked me, and while it is one thing to oppose euthanasia on principle, it is another to argue with a dying man. It is all dreadfully upsetting, and all I can say is that we have a doubled, a trebled responsibility in medicine not just to care for the chronically ill and dying, but to make some other kind of commitment to combat such horrific diseases, to fund research, to work for healing and palliation. Moral principle, somehow, is just not enough.
P s Charles, Prince of Wales, has launched a P s Charles, Prince of Wales, has launched a Respect initiative to help people of different religions to be nice to one another. Frankly, liking people of different religions is a doddle compared to liking some of the other people in one's own religion. That's the real trial of Christianity!