JOHN HUMPHRYS: Living life to the full DOESN’T mean living for ever
How wonderful to have three different things to cheer about in one week. All three of them are linked and, yes, Emma Raducanu is one of them.
I’m usually a bit of a grump when it comes to great sporting triumphs. I still yearn for the days of amateur sport when the great athletes did it for glory, not greed.
I was 11 when I watched Roger Bannister become the first man ever to break the four-minute mile, shake a few hands and go back to being a doctor the next day. How different from watching the graceless Ronaldo pocket half-a-million for a game, even if he does manage to score a goal or two.
Too many of us have seen loved ones suffer at the end of their days, perhaps because dementia has robbed them of a meaningful existence or because they have been struck down by a dreadful incurable disease
Yes, Emma became stinking rich the minute she hit that final ace and will become much, much richer and even more famous if she wins another Grand Slam.
But there’s something about her that suggests it’s possible to be a sporting superstar and still be a decent human being. It’s hard to define, but it’s there.
Maybe it’s because she seems genuinely to enjoy playing. More, she seems to enjoy life. There’s none of that tortured stuff you get from so many great athletes. It’s as if we should pity them for being so talented.
So that’s one good thing that happened this week.
Another — and I promise you there is a link — is that doctors at the annual meeting of the British Medical Association voted not to oppose physician-assisted dying.
For the first time in their history, they are now neutral on this profoundly important moral issue. Perhaps they were swayed by the polls, which unfailingly show that the public is way ahead of them. Every year the majority in favour increases.
There is a simple reason for that. Too many of us have seen loved ones suffer at the end of their days, perhaps because dementia has robbed them of a meaningful existence or because they have been struck down by a dreadful incurable disease.
The last time I wrote about this I described the desperate plight of a woman I first met 20-odd years ago. A bright, funny woman who loved life, until dementia struck.
Within ten years she was physically and mentally devastated. Incapable of speech or any independent movement. Two weeks ago she died. Her suffering had finally ended. And a terrible burden had been lifted from her wonderful daughter who had sacrificed her own life to care for her mother.
But twice in those hellish years she had developed life-threatening infections. Twice she was rushed to hospital and ‘cured’. Why?
This week, as the BMA was voting, the mother of another old friend died.
She was in her 90s, in poor health and had been in a nursing home, but with all her mental faculties. She wanted to die at home and her children respected her wishes. They were with her in her final hours. They did nothing to hasten her death, but she had made it clear she did not want to be kept alive. They mourned her death, but celebrated her life.
This was not assisted suicide, there was no doctor present. But she had a dignified end surrounded by those she loved.
This is surely what many of us would hope for.
Physician-assisted dying is something different, but it need not be the monstrous act conjured up by so many of its opponents who call it ‘euthanasia’ and paint terrifying pictures of helpless victims being bumped off by unscrupulous relatives desperate to get hold of their inheritance.
The bill now being considered in the House of Lords makes a nonsense of that. It would mean dying in dignity will become a right just as it is already in a growing number of countries.
The BMA’s vote makes it a little more likely that Parliament will pass the assisted dying bill when it leaves the Lords.
Once upon a time scientists and doctors examined our bodies to work out what makes us tick. Now they read our genetic code
And yet more good news this week. This time it’s about life rather than death.
A British genetics pioneer Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian has won one of science’s most valuable prizes and is on the point of unveiling a new technology that may transform our understanding of disease and ageing.
Once upon a time scientists and doctors examined our bodies to work out what makes us tick. Now they read our genetic code.
The simple bit is that DNA is called the code of life because it tells our body how to build proteins. Without proteins, our cells wouldn’t work. In fact, there wouldn’t be any cells. No cells: no life.
That’s why, when scientists Francis Crick and James Watson walked into a pub in Cambridge in 1953 and announced ‘We have discovered the secret of life’, they weren’t kidding. They had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA.
It took another 45 years for scientists to unravel the genetic code of an entire human chromosome. They had to decipher 33.5 million letters.
Now, thanks to scientists like Balasubramanian, we have something called Next Generation Sequencing which can do the job a million times faster. That matters because everybody’s genetics are different.
The cost of sequencing that first human genome is reckoned to have been $1 billion and it took ten years. The new technology means they can do 48 genomes in 48 hours and it costs less than $1,000 a pop.
And what all this means is that we are moving closer to being able to control individual genes, which seem to be linked to diseases like cancer. This is where ‘personalised medicine’ comes in.
If we can tell our genes to behave themselves, it changes everything.
So perhaps we should be a little more impressed, and even grateful, when Jeff Bezos boasts of spending billions to discover the holy grail which means we can live for ever?
On the contrary. We should laugh even louder. The Bezos bunkum distracts attention from what really matters: making our limited time on this earth as fulfilling and pain free as possible. And accepting our death as inevitable and sometimes even welcome.
Sorry Ms Rowling, but I’m afraid you’ve lost.
Remember wading into the transgender battle last year over a headline that appeared on a website about ‘people who menstruate’?
You followed it up with a tweet in which you said ‘Surely there used to be a word for those people … Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’
Some thought your tweet was funny. Others thought our most popular living author was ‘disgusting’ … a transphobe using her great power to ‘punch down’.
Most, I suspect, kept their views to themselves. Why risk being ‘cancelled’ in a cause that has probably been lost?
Anyone who heard the interview Martha Kearney conducted with Dr Viki Male on Radio 4’s Today programme this week will have concluded there’s no ‘probably’ about it.
Dr Male is a reproductive immunology expert at Imperial College. She has been researching the effects on the menstrual cycle of women who have Covid jabs. Or rather, as she puts it, on people who have periods.
Martha, to her credit, used the word ‘women’. Dr Male used ‘people’ not once, not twice, but ten times in a three-minute interview. Intriguingly she even used ‘people’ referring to those who are ‘thinking of becoming pregnant’. The word ‘women’ did not pass her lips.
Maybe it’s only words after all. But words matter.
Sex is a biological reality and countless brave women have fought for their sex. Many have died in that noble battle.
George Orwell knew that thought is dependent on words. That’s why his sinister Ministry of Truth in 1984 removed certain words from the dictionary.
We must not remove ‘women’ from ours.
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