Geoffrey Whaley, an 80 year-old-man in the final stages of terminal motor neurone disease, died today in his wife’s arms, surrounded by their closest family and friends.
In many ways it was the kind of death we all wish for – peaceful, dignified, with our nearest and dearest around us.
But Geoff was forced to travel hundreds of miles away from home, spend his final months attempting to overcome logistical hurdles and cough up £11,000 in order to ensure he could die in the way he wanted. All because of the law against assisted dying in this country.
Despite the staggering financial, practical and emotional cost, not to mention the fact that Geoff had to travel earlier than he would have wanted for fear that he’d become too ill to make the journey, Geoff and his family were prepared to go through with their plan. He was determined to cut his suffering short and avoid the traumatic death his illness had in store for him.
Geoff was diagnosed with motor neurone disease – an incurable, terminal illness - in December 2016. Since then he became almost completely immobile, then began losing his ability to breathe, swallow and speak. Though this was incredibly difficult for him and his family, they gradually came to terms with the fact that he would soon die. What enabled Geoff, his wife Ann and his children Alix and Dominic to cope was knowing that he was in control of his death. They could focus on maximising the time they had left without worrying that he would meet a traumatic end.
Then, just weeks away from his scheduled appointment at Dignitas, the family were horrified to discover that an anonymous call had been made to social services, alerting the police of their plans. The thought that Geoff might be prevented from travelling, or that Ann might be prosecuted for helping him get to Switzerland, completely devastated them.
Motor neurone disease has dealt Geoff and his family a cruel blow. But it was the law against assisted dying that has left them feeling truly crushed. The law robbed Geoff of control over his death and forced him to look elsewhere for compassion. Fortunately, he found it in Switzerland and he had the funds to get there. However, due to his physical condition, making the final arrangements and travelling alone would have been impossible. In doing what any loving wife would do in supporting her husband’s final wish, Ann is technically ‘assisting a suicide’ – a crime which carries a potential jail term of 14 years. Though at present the police have dropped their case, the events of the last few weeks have understandably left the family shaken. The investigation against Ann could even be reopened in light of new evidence.
Banning assisted dying in the UK does not make it go away. Every eight days someone from the UK travels to Switzerland to have the choice denied them at home, but this is only an option for those who can afford it, are well enough to travel and have loved ones willing to risk prison time. Most dying people are not so fortunate. Around 300 terminally ill people end their lives every year in England, often frightened, alone or in pain. Many more will endure immense suffering even with the best end-of-life care.
MPs had the chance to change this in 2015, when an assisted dying Bill was put before the Commons. It would have allowed terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life the option to request an assisted death, providing two independent doctors and a High Court judge could confirm that the individual met the strict criteria and was making a clear, settled decision of their own volition. But despite overwhelming public support, they rejected the proposal.
It is high time MPs looked seriously at this issue again. Over 100 million people in several American and Australian states and across Canada have access to assisted dying laws that provide choice and compassion to dying people and protection to others. It is surely not beyond the wit of our own elected representatives to listen to the views of terminally ill people, their families and the majority of the public and introduce similar legislation here.
In upholding the status quo, Parliament is shirking responsibility, turning its back on the suffering of dying people and ignoring the overwhelming public support for a change in the law. Geoff and Ann decided to try and turn their horrific experience into a positive by sharing it, in the hope that by exposing the cruelty of the law they can contribute to changing it. The Whaleys have done their bit – and then some. Now it’s Parliament’s turn.