Ann and Geoff Whaley’s story shocked the country when it broke on the 7th of February this year – the morning that Geoff died at Dignitas in the arms of his family. The public was appalled to learn that because of the blanket ban on assisted dying in this country, an 80 year old, terminally ill man was forced to travel hundreds of miles to Switzerland and spend thousands of pounds in order to have a dignified death. Not only this, but Ann, his wife of over 50 years, was investigated by police just days earlier when their plans were anonymously leaked to local authorities. Compassion should not be a crime, but a 76 year old, law-abiding woman who simply wanted to support her husband’s dying wish could have faced up to 14 years in prison.
Ann and Geoff’s experience also struck a chord with MPs – those who hold the power to change this broken law. The Whaley’s story was the inspiration for a debate in the House of Commons on the 4th of July, the first time MPs had debated assisted dying since 2015. Put forward by Nick Boles MP, who had the chance to meet with Geoff before his death, the debate allowed MPs to discuss how the blanket ban on assisted dying affects terminally ill people, their families and public services. Three quarters of speeches indicated support for a change in the law and many MPs raised the experiences of some of their constituents who have suffered greatly due to a lack of options for dying people in this country. One of the most affecting contributions was Paul Blomfield MP’s, who spoke of his father’s heart-breaking decision, eight years ago to the day, to end his own life rather than suffer a protracted and traumatic death from terminal lung cancer.
“If the law had made it possible, he would have been able to say goodbye.”
— Dignity in Dying (@dignityindying) July 5, 2019
Ann was also able to share her story with David Gauke MP, the Secretary of State for Justice, at a meeting in May, joined by Nick Boles and myself. It was revealed on Sunday (Mail on Sunday; Sunday Express, 21 July 2019) that David Gauke had hoped to announce a call for evidence on the functioning of the current law on assisted dying. Such a review would allow the experiences of dying people, their loved ones, healthcare professionals and law enforcement to be heard in full and should be welcomed by those on all sides of the debate.
The law is failing dying people, their families, and society as a whole
Those who oppose law change can attempt to provide evidence that the law is working well, but the truth is plain: the law is failing dying people, their families, and society as a whole. Ann and Geoff’s experience is symptomatic of a much wider problem: every eight days one Briton travels to Switzerland for an assisted death, their loved ones criminalised for acting out of love in helping them. A further 300 dying people without the funds or the strength to travel end their own lives in England every year, often frightened and alone. A great many more suffer against their wishes until the bitter end. In a supposedly civilised society, this is simply unacceptable.
Unfortunately, a call for evidence on assisted dying no longer looks likely under the present government, but we urge the new Prime Minister and Cabinet to carefully consider this important and humane initiative. It is high time for the Government to grasp the nettle and give assisted dying the attention it deserves.
Polls over the past three decades have consistently shown that the vast majority of the British public want to see a change in the law to give terminally ill people the right to die peacefully and with dignity in the country they call home. A majority of Tory party members also support law reform. With the Royal College of Physicians dropping its longstanding opposition to law change in favour of neutrality earlier this year, and the British Medical Association and Royal College of GPs shortly to survey their members on their views, it is clear that the medical profession acknowledges that this is an issue which can no longer be ignored. Parliament must do the same – to kick this into the long grass is to prolong the suffering of British citizens.”