In Europe the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg all allow assisted suicide. Private members’ bills to legalise it are due in both the Scottish and London Parliaments early next year. In New Zealand a private member’s bill to allow the practice awaits its first reading. In Canada Quebec’s newly elected ruling party plans to bring in similar legislation. In Australia New South Wales’s Parliament is also debating the issue. Even in Catholic Ireland a High Court decision is expected imminently on whether the partner of a multiple sclerosis sufferer can help her die without himself being prosecuted.

All this reflects a big shift towards secular thinking and individual autonomy as well as growing worries about the medicalised, miserable and costly way of death that awaits many people in rich countries. Assisted suicide typically gains overwhelming public support; legislators, pro-family lobbies, churches and doctors’ groups tend to be more squeamish. They fear that legal, easy-to-get assisted suicide will have dire social and moral effects.