A Buckinghamshire lady who was threatened with prosecution for allowing her husband, diagnosed with motor neurone disease, to travel to dignitas in Switzerland to end his life peacefully has prompted a debate around the law in the House of Commons.
The first major Commons debate on assisted dying since 2015 will take place on Thursday 4 July 2019.
The debate has been prompted by the case of Ann and Geoffrey Whaley, and will explore the functioning of the current law relating to assisted dying and the issues it causes for terminally ill people and their families.
Geoffrey Whaley, 80, from Buckinghamshire, died at Dignitas in Switzerland on 7 February 2019.
He had terminal motor neurone disease and in December was told he had just months left to live. He decided that he wished to control his death rather than suffer what he considered to be a drawn-out, traumatic end.
Due to an anonymous call to local authorities that Geoffrey planned to end his life abroad, he and his wife Ann, 76, were both investigated by police and social services. The family feared that Geoffrey would be prevented from travelling or that Ann might be arrested for ‘assisting a suicide’; a crime which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
Ann recently launched Acts of Love, a campaign that brings together families across the country who have been affected by the current law on assisted dying. Ann, along with Nick Boles MP and Sarah Wootton of Dignity in Dying, met with the Justice Secretary David Gauke MP in June. There they pressed for the government to examine the problems with the current law and the consequences for families like hers.
Ann Whaley said: “I am delighted that the Commons has granted the opportunity to discuss this important matter, particularly at such a busy time for Parliament. Geoffrey’s dying wish was for me to continue his legacy by telling his story and I hope that MPs will come to the debate and listen to his and the other stories behind the Acts of Love campaign.”
Nick Boles, who will introduce the debate, said:
“Ann and Geoff’s experiences in the weeks leading up to Geoff’s death have shown more clearly than ever the cruel effects of Britain’s blanket ban on assisted dying. Today’s debate will give MPs a chance to debate the impact of the current law on hundreds of families like the Whaleys every year and help build the case for a change in the law so that thousands of others are spared this torment in the years to come.”
Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who "encourages or assists a suicide" is liable to up to 14 years in prison.
There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
Currently, every 8 days someone travels to Switzerland from Britain for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average and often causes people to die earlier than they would have wanted in order to be well enough to make the journey.
Karin Smyth MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life, said:
“In February I was privileged to host a meeting with the Whaleys, when they came to tell MPs about the dreadful impact our laws had on them as a family. For Ann to be interviewed under caution for simply helping her husband of more than fifty years to have the death he wants cannot be right.
“Not only does their story show that we must do better for dying people in this country, we must do much better for the public servants who are forced to try and enforce this broken law. To ask police officers to intrude on a law-abiding family in the last days and weeks before the loss of their loved ones will put them under enormous emotional strain. When we continue to criminalise simple acts of love, giving dying people choice at the end of life, we cannot claim to be a compassionate country.”
New Zealand is currently considering an End of Life Choice Bill which passed second reading on Wednesday 26 June 2019.
Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying as an option for terminally ill citizens on 19 June 2019. The Government of Western Australia plan to introduce an Assisted Dying Bill in their state Parliament in the second half of 2019.
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:
“Ann and Geoffrey are not alone in feeling the dreadful effects of the UK’s broken law on assisted dying. Compassion is not a crime, yet families across the country have been made to feel like criminals for acting out of love for a dying loved one. Others did not have the funds or means to act and instead watching helplessly as a relative suffered a traumatic death or took drastic steps to end their own life. MPs need to hear these stories.
“Medical organisations are shifting their positions. The Royal College of Physicians has this year decided to take a neutral view on assisted dying, while the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs have recently announced that they will survey their members on the issue. The US, Canada, Australia and New Jersey all have, or are moving towards, assisted dying laws that grant their terminally ill citizens true choice at the end of life.
“It is high time that MPs have a detailed, respectful debate on this important issue and I hope that they will listen to constituents’ experiences with an open mind. It is also time for Government to act on our broken laws and hold an inquiry into the devastation caused to dying people and their families across the UK.”
Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it.
A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in the UK every year.