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Ann Whaley, Joy Munns lead new campaign for inquiry into cruel assisted dying laws

Ann Whaley, Joy Munns and others who have been criminalised by the UK’s assisted dying laws are today (Tuesday 14 January 2020) calling on the Justice Secretary to launch an inquiry into the impact of “cruel, outdated” legislation.

Alongside Dignity in Dying they today launch a new campaign, Compassion is Not a Crime, urging the Ministry of Justice to announce a call for evidence on the functioning and impact of the current blanket ban on assisted dying. Assisted dying is a crime under Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, which states that a person found guilty of “assisting a suicide” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

The campaign also has the backing of former Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton, a colleague of Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg who publicly called for reform on assisted dying laws before his death from motor neurone disease in December 2019.

Ann, 77, from Buckinghamshire, was investigated by police after an anonymous call alerted social services of her plan to accompany her terminally ill husband Geoffrey, 80, to Dignitas in February 2019.

Ann said:

“Geoffrey had been by my side for over 50 years and I was determined to be by his until the very end. But in supporting his final wish to die with dignity, I became a criminal under British law. It was utterly devastating to think that I might be arrested or that Geoffrey might be stopped from travelling. I hope the Justice Secretary listens to experiences like ours and conducts a much-needed review of our cruel, outdated assisted dying laws.”

Joy, 54, was horrified when her mother Mavis Eccleston, 80, from Staffordshire, was charged with the murder and manslaughter of her husband Dennis, 81, after he ended his own life at home in February 2018 while dying of bowel cancer. Mavis, who had attempted to overdose at the same time, was resuscitated and later charged. A jury unanimously found her not guilty on both counts following a trial at Stafford Crown Court in September 2019.

Joy said:

“My mom would have done anything for her husband, but she had no idea that her actions, motivated purely by love, would land her in the dock. On top of losing Dad, we were terrified we would lose Mom to life in prison. Under an assisted dying law, this would never have happened. Politicians have to face facts – a law is clearly not working if it makes criminals of innocent great-grandmothers.”

Former Justice Secretary David Gauke expressed support for a call for evidence on assisted dying laws last year. This was backed by cross-party MPs in a Commons debate in July, during Justice Questions in October and in a joint letter later that month.

Compassion is Not a Crime is backed by colleagues of Ron Hogg, Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, who died of motor neurone disease in December 2019. Ron used his final months to call for reform on assisted dying, and wrote to the Justice Secretary alongside 17 fellow PCCs in October urging him to launch an inquiry into current laws.

Mike Barton, former Chief Constable for Durham, served alongside Ron and delivered the eulogy at his funeral on the 7th of January. He said:

“The police can only really enforce laws which command wide public support. When there is clear injustice in the arrest of caring and traumatised relatives, nobody gains; prolonging a cruel illness is surely the greater sin. I don’t think the public want us to use our valuable resources to turn grieving family members into criminals. Surely it’s time for a review of the UK’s assisted dying legislation. I know that’s what Ron would’ve wanted.”

Martyn Underhill, PCC for Dorset, a friend and colleague of Ron’s and national lead for PCCs on suicide, said:

“It is deeply concerning that our assisted dying laws may be doing more harm than good. Banning the practice merely drives it underground or overseas; it creates a two-tier system where only those who are wealthy enough to go to Switzerland can avail themselves of this option; and there is a scattergun approach to enforcing the law, where there is either no scrutiny at all or families are forced to endure intrusive investigations at great cost to the public purse.

“Ron was sadly unable to live to see the change he so desperately wanted, but his powerful words live on. I hope the Justice Secretary will honour his commitment to meet with me in Ron’s place and give law-enforcers the opportunity to offer our valuable insight. It’s time to investigate our broken laws, not innocent families.”

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“Compassion should not be a crime, but under the UK’s blanket ban on assisted dying, it is. Not only are dying people denied the right to die on their own terms, forcing them to resort to drastic measures at home and abroad, but their family members are then criminalised for acts of love.

“An inquiry would enable the views of those most affected to be heard – terminally ill people, their loved ones, the police and other public services. We call on the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, to launch a call for evidence as a matter of urgency. Our outdated assisted dying laws deserve to be scrutinised, not dying people or their loving families.”

***ENDS***

For more information, photos of Ann, Joy and other case studies, and interview requests, please contact Ellie Ball, Media & Campaigns Manager at Dignity in Dying on 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025 or ellie.ball@dignityindying.org.uk

Notes to Editor:

Assisted dying proposals in the British Isles and Crown Dependencies

  • The Isle of Man’s Parliament, Tynwald, has announced it will debate assisted dying at its January sitting. It last debated legislation in 2015.
  • Jersey’s Council of Ministers announced in 2019 that it would undertake detailed research into the views of residents, overseas developments and potential legislation.
  • The Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands voted in favour of two motions on assisted dying in July 2018 (that terminally ill residents should have the right to die at a time and place of their choosing, and that should legislation be introduced in the UK, the Falkland Islands would consider adopting it).
  • The States of Guernsey last debated assisted dying proposals in May 2018.
  • The House of Commons last debated an assisted dying bill in September 2015.

International developments

  • Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in ten US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine (June 2019).
  • Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. Western Australia voted to legalise a similar bill in December 2019.
  • New Zealand will put an End of Life Choice Bill to a public referendum in 2020 after the legislation passed third reading in November 2019.
  • Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016. As a result of the Canadian Supreme Court’s judgment in Carter v Canada in February 2015, the Canadian government introduced assisted dying legislation in June 2016.

Healthcare professionals

  • The Royal College of GPs is set to announce the results of a membership survey on assisted dying in February 2020.
  • The British Medical Association is due to launch its first ever membership survey on assisted dying in February 2020.
  • Last year, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey.

About Dignity in Dying

  • Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live – something supported by 84% of the public (Populus, 2019).
  • Dignity in Dying does not provide practical assistance or advice in ending life, nor does it provide enquirers with the contact details of organisations who do so.