“Cruel and inhumane” – why we need the right to die
Almost 20 years ago, in 2006, I first began to think seriously about death and how it may be possible to ensure a person you loved might be helped to die with dignity. My mother spent the last year of her life, at the age of 80, in a nursing home suffering the ravages of late-stage Parkinson’s disease. She had lost her dignity and independence entirely. She was in constant pain; she couldn’t swallow. Each time I sat alongside her bed she whispered her plea: “Jen, please, help me. Help me die.”
No words have ever cut through me the way those did. Even now, I hear them and recall my response: “Mum, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t help you to die. It’s illegal.”
Because of a law that is cruel and inhumane, my mother died alone in the night with no one who loved her at her side. So, I decided there and then that I would campaign for the law to be changed. I fancied that by now, in a civilised country like ours, the right to an assisted death at one’s own time of choosing would’ve become legal. I was wrong.
I wept when I read of David Hunter, the British former miner who, with his wife Janice, retired to Cyprus. But Janice developed blood cancer and I don’t have to imagine what it was like for David when his wife of 52 years begged him to end her life. It’s unbearable to feel powerless to ease the intense suffering of someone you love so much. I feared the consequences of helping my mother to die. David was not afraid. He suffocated her. She died. He called his brother in England and tried but failed to take his own life. The authorities were informed of his actions.
My sons must never have to sit by my bed hearing me beg them to help me die, knowing there is nothing they can do.
There was no sympathy in the Cyprus legal system. Euthanasia is illegal and considered taboo by the Greek Orthodox Church. Accused of murder, he spent nearly two years in prison before his defence was taken over by the legal aid group Justice Abroad and his “crime” was changed from murder to manslaughter. He was found not guilty of premeditated murder, but guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and freed, having served the necessary time.
David’s experience is tragic, as is the case of Quintin Davis, the father of Evan who presents PM on BBC Radio 4. At 92, Quintin suffered from bowel cancer and heart trouble. Doctors were unable to give him more help. Like some 650 terminally ill people in the UK each year, he took his own life. Up to ten times more attempt it.
Quintin planned his exit meticulously, leaving notes for people not to enter the house, but to call his older son, then 999. He left instructions for the paramedics, “Do not resuscitate”, as well as a handwritten letter making it clear his action had been done of his own volition; no one had given him any assistance. He wanted to be sure his family wouldn’t suffer.
No one should have to go through such nightmares when life has become too painful and unbearable to continue. When a person chooses the day they shall die they should be able to gather their family and take whatever medicine a doctor can provide to give them a dignified death surrounded by loved ones.
There are now signs things may change for the better. A number of US states have changed the law, as have Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Scotland has drafted an assisted dying bill, so too has the parliament in the Isle of Man, while assembly members in Jersey voted in 2021 in favour of the principle of legalising assisted dying.
In Britain there is consistent support for the principle, polling more than 80%. The medical profession has voted to amend its long-held opposition to the change in the law, taking a neutral stance. Last year, the first Commons inquiry into assisted dying was launched.
My sons must never have to sit by my bed hearing me beg them to help me die, knowing there is nothing they can do. Legal assisted dying can’t come soon enough.