Euthanasia: From the Greek εὐθανασία Meaning 'Good Death'

05/08/2012 17:08 BST | Updated 03/10/2012 10:12 BST

From the day you are born, even though your shoulders are no broader than a 12" ruler, you carry a burden of responsibility of which most are unaware until they reach the other end of their life.

Even though it is inevitable, death is not a very popular topic of conversation and as it is a trait of human nature to avoid the unpleasant; we avert our eyes from a disturbing scene and put the telephone bill to the bottom of the pile; we rarely think about our own mortality and what may happen in the months or years leading up to our final moments.

Will it be a peaceful and gentle death during your sleep, or will you spend your final years in mental or physical disintegration that requires daily assistance to perform the simplest of bodily functions?

There can be few of us who anticipate problems and set up a system to deal with them, whether it is putting money aside for first class medical care or writing a living will.

But even allowing for your wishes, as a UK citizen, it is not as easy as you may think to decide on your method of despatch.

Euthanasia, which also goes by the name of assisted suicide, is illegal in the UK and the ethics surrounding a person's choice of death have been debated for centuries.

It is only since the Suicide Act 1961 that the act of suicide itself was decriminalised so if the person failed to kill themselves they would not be prosecuted.

But what is the difference between suicide and euthanasia?

Generally suicide involves one person who cannot cope with life's challenges e.g. unhappiness or debt and euthanasia relates to the relief of pain and suffering e.g. if someone is dying from a painful unpleasant illness. Some say suicide is an act of cowardice whereas euthanasia is an act of mercy.

There are three categories of euthanasia: voluntary, non voluntary and involuntary, each one having their own legal definition that has become necessary due to the complexities of the procedure, and the law relating to it varies from country to country.

For example active voluntary euthanasia when help is given by administering a lethal dose of a sedative for instance, is legal in Belgium and the Netherlands and passive voluntary euthanasia when essential treatment is withheld, is legal throughout the United States. In both cases, the person suffering makes the decision to end their life.

Involuntary or non voluntary euthanasia when the person does not wish to die but is killed anyway amounts to murder and is illegal throughout the world. The only exception might be when the consent of the person is not possible e.g. a baby whose life, should it be permitted to live, would be so intolerably painful and unpleasant that the law would allow euthanasia to take place. This happened recently when a judge ruled Baby X life support should be withdrawn.

The debate surrounding euthanasia continues with religious, ethical and practical considerations coming into play.

During their annual conference in June this year, the British Medical Association (BMA) rejected the Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD) request to change their opposition to a "studied" neutrality. The BMA confirmed their continued opposition to euthanasia saying that "a change in position would send the wrong message".

The campaign group Care Not Killing said the BMA's decision was "a victory for common sense... We hope the BMA will continue its valuable work... for high quality compassionate care for patients at the end of life".

But what about those of us who end up in a vegetative state and who do not wish to remain alive? What of our dignity, pride and human rights, or like so many of our traits, are these the human failings that have to be dealt with by those in authority?

Tony Nicklinson who hit the headlines recently with his right to die Twitter campaign and who can only communicate by blinking his eyes, is asking for his rights to be respected as he campaigns to be allowed to die with dignity, having been left completely paralysed following a stroke in 2005.

However, the law says it will not support euthanasia because of the responsibilities a person has towards their family and friends and the effect the death would have on their emotional well being, i.e. an individual cannot unilaterally decide to end their life.

So to go back to my opening paragraph, strange as it may seem, one of the reasons the UK will not make euthanasia legal is because of the effect your death will have on others.

Fair or not?