I haven’t posted about assisted dying for a while.
OK, so I haven’t posted much of anything for a while, but let’s gloss over that!
Like many supporters of
, and believers in a change in the law to allow terminally ill people autonomy over their death, I was gutted when Noel Conway’s latest legal battle was unsuccessful in November.
Noel has been an unending powerhouse in fighting for a change in the law. Suffering with Motor Neurone disease, and wanting the assurance that he can end his own life when the disease becomes too much for him to bear, he has been through court cases and appeals, all with the support of Dignity in Dying. In November the Supreme Court – the highest in the UK – ruled that he could not appeal against an earlier ruling that he could end his life by assisted suicide at such time he deemed fit.
This leaves Noel in the situation of either waiting for his disease to kill him; a slow, dignity stripping and painful end, or seeking an assisted death elsewhere. The current choice of destination for Brits wanting to end their own life on their own terms is Dignitas in Switzerland.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll know that my Dad wanted the option to travel to there rather than be ravaged by a late stage diagnosis of prostate cancer. What he actually wanted, underneath all of that, was what many terminally ill people want – the choice to end their life on their own terms, in their own home with their family around them, With that not being an option, Dignitas was the next best thing for him. Unfortunately his GP blocked the necessary paperwork he needed, on legal and ethical grounds, leaving Dad to face the very end that scared him most.
Fast forward then to this week, and the heartbreaking case of Geoff Whaley and his family. Geoff too had motor neurone disease, like Noel Conway. Geoff feared the disease taking away any sense of living in his final months. Being alive is so different to living, and that wasn’t what Geoff wanted. So he made plans to travel to Dignitas and have control over his death.
I did not fear death, but I did fear the journey. When I eventually got the ‘green light’ from Dignitas, a weight lifted; I was able to get on with living without the constant mental anguish over my death.
This is the key for so many people who want the choice of assisted death. Fear hangs over them and overtakes every day – days when they could be making the most of the time they have left. My Dad was a living example of this; he was consumed by wondering how ill he would get. Would the cancer take his mobility? Would he end up bedbound? Unable to go to the bathroom? Would his death be everything he didn’t want it to be?
Horribly, for Geoff and his family, someone made an anonymous phonecall to the authorities to alert them to his plan. Imagine involving the law in a dying man’s wishes? Imagine the selfishness and self-centredness that would lead you to try and turn a dying man and his family into criminals?
Because that’s one of the major issues here. Anyone who assists a person to make their way to Dignitas and end their life can face a criminal investigation and up to 14 years in prison. Geoff’s wife had made the arrangements for him because his disease had already stripped him of the use of his hands to make the calls and send the emails himself.
Thankfully, although a small mercy, the police decided not to proceed with any criminal charges. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Geoff’s final weeks were blighted by the threat of investigation and criminal charges against his family.
Geoff travelled to Switzerland with his wife, children and close friends. He ended his life independently by drinking a cup of water laced with barbiturates.
Tellingly, his wife Ann said:
I wish the law let me have him for longer.
Geoff, like so many others, had to end his life earlier than he may have wanted to because of logistics. He had to be well enough to travel to Switzerland. Had the UK law been different, Geoff would not have had to expedite his death for fear of missing the opportunity.
In a last show of strength, Geoff wrote an open letter to MPs. In it, he implores them to consider the real effects of the law on real people and real families.
No family should ever have to endure the torment we have undergone in recent weeks.
You can read the full letter here.
The reason that people like Geoff and Noel fight the fight is not for themselves. It’s for the future of other people who might find themselves in such a position. And their fight isn’t without results.
Change of heart
Although every assisted dying bill has so far been overruled in the House of Commons – the most recent being the bill brought forward by Lord Falconer in 2015, the tide is turning. Some MPs are becoming vocal in their support for a change in the law. Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who I listened to in Parliament last January as he spoke of the potential for an assisted dying law to be exploited, and therefore his inability to support it, has now come out with a very different view.
He concedes that, with safeguards in place, assisted dying could be a viable legal option for terminally ill people. He has publicly gone on record as saying he is now in support of looking at the law surrounding the controversial topic.
There’s still much to be done. Change won’t come overnight, and nor should it. But the fact that high profile cases such as Geoff’s are making politician’s think more about the situation and how they themselves might want to proceed with the same circumstances can only be a good thing.
RIP Geoff Whaley.
Thanks, as always, for reading. x