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Compassion is not a crime: new campaign ‘Acts of Love’ launched by families devastated by ban on assisted dying

  • Campaign led by Ann Whaley, who was investigated by police in February for supporting her husband’s wish to die at Dignitas
  • Ann has written open letter to MPs and Peers and will meet Justice Secretary next month to ask Government to examine problems with law
  • Launch comes as Lord Sumption’s first Reith lecture is broadcast, in which he claims assisted dying ban should remain but be broken by compassionate families
  • Baroness Meacher due to raise the issue of families suffering from this cruel law in Lords this Thursday

Families across the country who have felt the devastating effects of the blanket ban on assisted dying have come together today (Tuesday 21 May 2019) to launch a new campaign calling for a change in the law.

‘Acts of Love’ is led by Ann Whaley, who was interviewed under caution earlier this year after police were anonymously notified of her plan to accompany her terminally ill husband Geoffrey to Dignitas. Ann is due to meet with the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, next month, whose support for a change in the law was recently revealed (Sunday Express, 19 May 2019). Ann will be urging Mr Gauke to look at the dreadful consequences that the current law on assisted dying is causing for families like hers.

Ann has the backing of Great British Bake Off presenter Prue Leith, patron of Dignity in Dying, who said:

“How can it be that a wife who helps her husband hasten a death too wretched to bear has to face police investigation on top of the grief and anguish that widowhood brings.”

The campaign, comprised of over 30 relatives and friends from across the country, launches as Lord Sumption’s first Reith lecture is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 today. At its recording, Ann asked the former Supreme Court judge for his views on the current law, to which he replied “I think that the law should continue to criminalise assisted suicide, and I think that the law should be broken from time to time… That is an untidy compromise few lawyers would adopt but I don’t believe there’s a moral obligation to obey the law. Ultimately it’s for each person to decide.”

On Thursday, Baroness Molly Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, will be pressing the Minister to accept that when a former Supreme Court Judge suggests that families of dying relatives should break the law, that law is itself broken and needs reform. She will ask what plans the Government has to prepare for legislative change on assisted dying.

Ann has written an open letter to all MPs urging them to listen to the Reith lecture broadcast and to support Acts of Love.

Ann said:

“Lord Sumption’s comments show complete unawareness of the reality faced by families like mine. We were fortunate enough to have the money to help Geoffrey get his final wish to die on his own terms, but many in this country are not so lucky. We also had to say goodbye before we were ready as Geoffrey feared he was losing the strength to travel. When the police got involved, our world fell apart. I was made to feel like a criminal for acting out of love and this has spurred me on to launch this campaign with Dignity in Dying.

“I am delighted that David Gauke has agreed to meet me to discuss these issues and I am encouraged by his support for my family’s plight. Compassion is not a crime and the current law cannot be allowed to continue as it is – that is my message to him and to all MPs.”

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

“The families behind Acts of Love have all felt the effects of the UK’s cruel and outdated law on assisted dying. Some, like Ann, have been criminalised for acting out of love for a terminally ill relative after the blanket ban on assisted dying forced them to take the law into their own hands. Others did not have the funds or means to act, and instead watched helplessly as a loved one suffered a traumatic death at home or took drastic steps to end their own life. Families should not be put in this agonising position.

“Over 100 million people around the world are covered by laws that take this dilemma out of the hands of loved ones and instead provide dying citizens with choice and compassion alongside robust protection for the rest of society. It is high time the UK followed suit. We are calling on the Justice Secretary to look into the suffering caused by the blanket ban on assisted dying in this country. Until change comes, acts of love will continue to be criminalised and compassion will be punished. If we really care about our dying citizens and their families, there is only one thing to do: fix this broken law.”


For further information or interviews with representatives of Dignity in Dying, please contact Ellie Ball at / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025 or Tom Davies at / 0207 479 7734
Photos of Ann and Geoffrey Whaley are available to download.

Notes to Editor:

Geoffrey and Ann Whaley

  • Geoffrey Whaley, 80, father of two and grandfather of four from Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, an incurable, terminal illness, in December 2016. In December 2018 Geoffrey was given a prognosis of six to nine months. He had lost the use of both legs and arms and was beginning to lose his ability to speak, breathe and swallow.
  • In order to avoid the final weeks of suffering and a traumatic death, Geoffrey set about organising an assisted death at Dignitas in Switzerland – a process that took several months and cost the family over £11,000.
  • In January 2019, Geoffrey lost the use of his hands and instructed his wife Ann to book their flights and accommodation.
  • Weeks before their intended journey to Switzerland, social services and police were anonymously notified of their plan. Ann was interviewed under caution by police.
  • Days before their scheduled trip, the investigation was dropped. It may be reopened should new evidence come to light.

The law on assisted dying in the UK

  • Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
  • In February 2010, following the Debbie Purdy case, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued the prosecuting policy on cases of ‘Encouraging or Assisting Suicide’. It covers actions that happen in England and Wales, even if the death happens abroad. The policy includes a list of public interest factors that will influence whether or not someone is prosecuted for assisting suicide. The policy states that in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide, prosecutors must apply the public interest factors in making their decision about whether or not to prosecute. A prosecution will usually take place unless the prosecutor is sure that there are sufficient public interest factors against it.
  • A prosecution is less likely if the person made a voluntary, informed decision to end their life, and if the assister was wholly motivated by compassion.
  • A prosecution is more likely if the person ending their own life was under 18, lacked capacity to make an informed decision about ending their life or was physically able to end their life without assistance. The assister is more likely to be prosecuted if they had a history of violence or abuse against the person they assisted, were unknown to the person, were paid by the person ending their own life, or were acting as a healthcare professional.

The true cost of the current law

  • Currently, every 8 days [1] someone travels to Switzerland from Britain for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average [2] and often causes people to die earlier than they would have wanted in order to be well enough to make the journey.
  • Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it [3]. A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in the UK every year [4].

International developments

  • Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in nine US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii and New Jersey (April 2019).
  • Victoria will become the first Australian state to pass a Bill legalising assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. A similar Bill was defeated in New South Wales by just one vote in November 2017. The Government of Western Australia plan to introduce an Assisted Dying Bill in their state Parliament in the second half of 2019.
  • Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016.

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 [5].
  • 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.

[1] Estimated using publicly available figures from Dignitas and figures supplied through private correspondence with the Life Circle (Eternal Spirit) facility.
[2] The True Cost: How the UK outsources death to Dignitas – Dignity in Dying, November 2017
[3] Polling conducted by YouGov, August 2017.
[4] A Hidden Problem: Suicide by terminally ill people – Dignity in Dying, October 2014.
[5] Polling conducted by Populus, March 2010.