Assisted Suicide of Dr Anne Turner today shows British law is shortening lives
Britain’s leading advocates of patient choice in end of life decisions says Dr Anne Turner’s assisted death in Switzerland today is a further example of how our law is shortening lives.
Dr Turner, a medical doctor aged 67, was suffering with the incurable illness called progressive supranuclear palsy. She ended her life peacefully at midday with medical assistance from Dignitas in Zurich.
Dignity in Dying’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts said,
“This case is truly heart-breaking. The Government must make time in Parliament for the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. Only this Bill could have prevented Anne Turner from taking her life early. If this Bill had been law, Anne would not have been forced to go to Zurich whilst she was still able to travel, for help to die. She would be alive today.
“Experience in countries where assisted dying is a legal option shows that people with terminal illnesses keep on living rather than ending their lives early. They know that if their suffering becomes more than they can bear they can ask their doctor for help to die.
“In Britain, the lack of choice for terminally ill people drives people like Anne Turner to take matters into their own hands while their illness allows them to. Our law is shortening rather than prolonging life.
“Whose family wants to be put in the impossible situation of trying to reconcile the law with their conscience? That fate could befall any of us.
“The only way to stop people going abroad for help to die, committing mercy killings, or taking their own lives is to give terminally ill patients the right to make their own decisions on how and when they die. Patient choice is the best safeguard there can be against abuse. The Government must act now to change the law so everyone has the right to die with dignity.”
Our law on assisted suicide is the harshest in Europe. Several countries do not regard assisting a suicide as a crime and of the few that do, maximum penalties are commonly much less than the 14 years in England and Wales.
There are around 800 members of Dignitas in Britain. Last week independent research showed for the first time there were 3000 covert cases of euthanasia in 2004. The Law Commission is currently reviewing the law of murder, which it describes as “a mess” for relatives who help loved ones to die. One third of mercy killers go on to take their own lives according to Home Office research. And 82 per cent of people in Britain want the Government to change our law to allow assisted dying.
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Assisted Dying in the UK: Facts
- There were 673 British members of Dignitas on 18 January 2006.
- Dignitas has helped 42 British people to die in three years (including Anne Turner).
- The first known case was Reg Crew in January 2003.
- Assisting a suicide carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment in England and Wales. It is not a crime in Switzerland provided there are no self-serving motives.
- None of the Swiss cases so far have involved any criminal charges but police often take several months to investigate relatives (8 months for Reg Crew’s widow and daughter and 5 months for Lesley Close).
- Britain is more out of line with Europe with the Swiss. 8 countries do not regard assisting a suicide as an offence provided it is not self-serving. These are: Scotland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland. Penalties are usually much less in other countries and under a year in Denmark, Norway, Poland, and Austria.
- Switzerland’s law is not the same as the Netherlands and Belgium because it has no procedure with safeguards these countries go further by laying down how assistance should be given to protect patients from the risk of abuse.
The current law
- One third of mercy killers go on to take their own lives (Home Office research)
- There were eight cases a day or nearly 3000 cases of covert euthanasia in Britain in 2004 (Seale, 2006) and nearly 200,000 cases of doctors who may have shortened life with pain killers. No safeguards are in place to protect vulnerable patients or guide doctors. There was only one known prosecution in the last two years and this failed (Dr Howard Martin, December 2005).
Support for changing the law
- 82 per cent of the public support a change in the law (NOP World 2004)
- 56% of doctors would prefer assisted dying to be openly regulated (Medix UK, 2004)
- 61% of nurses would like the law to be changed (Nursing Times 2003)
Facts about Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (taken from http://www.psp.org/)
“Progressive supranuclear palsy is an under-recognized brain disease. Symptoms typically begin in one’s 60s, but can start as early as the 40s. Those affected usually survive six to ten years after the initial symptoms occur. In people with PSP, gradual loss of certain brain cells causes slowing of movement and reduced control of walking, balance, swallowing, speaking and eye movement. People with PSP eventually become wheelchair bound or bedridden.
Loss of balance while walking is the most frequent first symptom of PSP. Many times the falls are described by the person experiencing them as dizziness attacks, prompting suspicion of an inner ear problem. Another characteristic symptom of PSP, and the one for which the disease is named, is weakness (palsy) of eye movements, especially in the downward direction. Other symptoms that occur in some are emotional or personality changes such as increased irritability, occasional angry outbursts or sudden bouts of laughing or crying, sleep disturbances, slurred speech and intellectual losses such as forgetfulness, mental slowing, apathy, and difficulty with abstract reasoning.
PSP is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease because of the general slowing of movement. Less often, it is mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease because of its changes in mood, intellect and personality.”