In my last conversation with her (and it’s odd to talk to someone in good spirits who is about to make sure they die) she told me of two hospital experiences which convince her she was doing the right thing. In the first, when she was undergoing one of many procedures, the woman in the bed opposite was in terrible pain. The doctors had done their best with every sort of analgesic but in that moment Gerry understood more vividly than she had ever glimpsed before how bad the suffering can be for terminal patients. The idea that pain can always be relieved is a well-meaning lie. So is the myth that one’s dignity can always be preserved. The palliative care industry has a noble calling but in its desire for self-promotion its proponents should not exaggerates its powers. The second revelation came soon afterwards when Gerry attended outpatients to learn whether her chemotherapy had done her more harm than good (sadly, in her case, the side effects were ghastly and the hoped-for benefits were nil). A nurse told her the doctor was busy but would be with her shortly. She waited four hours in that waiting room, “four precious hours left sitting on a plastic chair when I only had a few weeks left to live.” She resolved then with more certainty than ever that she would not wait around to die at the convenience of her cancer or according to the schedule of her carers.
Like Gerry, I take it to be self-evident that people facing imminent death should be allowed to manage the means and time of their departure. Yet Britain is so primitive and dichotomist in its thinking that suicide is only acceptable when one has what is normally a transient motive like depression. It is legal when able-bodied but not when someone is so ill they need assistance. It is permissible when causing terrible distress to others, such as throwing oneself in front of a moving train, but not when done in hospital with those you love beside you and with the help of willing and caring clinicians who are used to seeing death. Instead Gerry had to abandon her home and her country and be driven across Europe (she was too sick to fly and needed oxygen) to end her life in a light commercial estate in an impersonal Swiss suburb.
We wouldn’t treat a dog so badly.
It sometimes seems that each concession to freedom in this country has had to be dragged out of a reluctant and controlling instinct that someone else knows best. Universal suffrage is less than a century old for women and suicide itself was only decriminalised in 1961. Any freedom can be abused, of course, so there must be safeguards, and personally I would want even stronger protections than Lord Joffe has proposed in his Assisted Dying Bill. But the principle is clear: self-determination is at the core of any concept of human rights. Just as no doctor or nurse should be obliged to have a hand in something they find morally objectionable so no brave soul like Gerry should be abandoned to die at the choosing and timing of uncontrollable cancer.
And never let organised religion be a trump card to imprison free spirits like Gerry in its own dogmas. No, bishops and legislators have no call to criticise Gerry. Rather they should heed her, set moral cowardice aside and make death for people like her more humane. I and others who knew Gerry won’t rest until that day comes – and, of course, it will come.
Meanwhile it is a dismal reflection on political slothfulness and lack of courage that thousands more Britons like Geraldine McClelland – unless they all slink off secretly to Dignitas as she did – will be deprived of a decent death.