PRINCESS Anne has hailed a group representing 34,000 women for debating euthanasia at its annual conference, after delegates voted to press for a change in the law.

The Princess Royal, the Townwomen’s Guild’s patron, said the organisation had broken a taboo by highlighting “the most difficult and uncomfortable subject which very few people take the trouble to talk about”.

She said: “I hope it will inspire new members, the fact you take the trouble to discover more than the headlines behind these subjects.”

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The debate, which had been organised by the 750-branch group’s chairwoman, Pauline Myers, of Woodham, near Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, saw members discuss whether new legislation was needed to allow terminally-ill, mentally competent people the right to an assisted death.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of political campaign Dignity in Dying told delegates at Harrogate International Centre that many doctors won’t discuss assisted dying with patients for fear of prosecution.

She said one Briton a fortnight was travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland for help to die and many people were choosing assisted deaths early in their terminal illnesses to avoid the cost of an air ambulance later.

She told the conference, which was attended by guilds from Darlington and district, Cleveland and South Durham, North Durham and Sunderland, while polls had shown 80 per cent of Britons supported assisted dying, there had been no change in the law due to fears over unintended consequences and many MPs having strong religious beliefs.

Anne Bainbridge, a former nurse of the Barnard Castle guild, told the conference: “I don’t think this decision should be made when you are terminally ill and under sedation. It should be made before, like as if you are making a will.”

One Christian delegate said assisted deaths were akin to murder, but after hearing 30 per cent of people have lengthy and painful deaths, delegates overwhelmingly supported the motion to lobby the Government to permit assisted deaths.

Later, the guild’s vice-president, television presenter Esther Rantzen, said she would support the campaign to change the euthanasia law.

She said: “I think the population is saying we don’t want to be forced to live in pain so our families’ last memories of us are of us suffering.”

Ms Rantzen told delegates about The Silverline charity, which is being launched nationwide in November to provide 24-hour free advice to elderly people, with a pilot phone line (0800-328-8888) running in the North-East from June 26.

She said loneliness could affect people living in urban areas such as Durham or Middlesbrough as much as those living in the North York Moors or Yorkshire Dales.