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Dignity in Dying responds to Lord Sumption’s recent comments on assisted dying

Ann Whaley, who accompanied her terminally ill husband Geoffrey to Dignitas in Switzerland in February 2019, was in the audience for Lord Sumption’s preliminary Reith lecture held at Middle Temple in London on 16 April 2019. Ann asked, regarding the blanket ban on assisted dying, “when we have a broken law that is causing such a great deal of suffering, where else do we turn but the courts if our politicians refuse to act?”

Following the lecture, Ann said:

“Lord Sumption’s suggestion that the law should stay as it is but that it should be broken from time to time is completely ignorant of the reality faced by dying people and their loved ones. My family and I have experienced first-hand the effects of our cruel, outdated law. Our world was plunged into chaos when the police were anonymously notified of our plan to accompany my terminally ill husband to Dignitas. I was interviewed under caution and we were terrified that Geoffrey might be stopped from travelling, or that I might be arrested.

“We were fortunate enough to have the funds to make the journey to Switzerland, and had family and friends who were willing to risk prosecution to help Geoff get there, but this is simply not the case for most people. When a law is causing real damage, as the blanket ban on assisted dying is, it should be changed, not ignored. This is why I am requesting a meeting with the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, to ask him to look into the many problems the current law causes for families like ours. We need a law that shows compassion to terminally ill people by allowing them control over their death, while ensuring potentially vulnerable people are protected.”

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

“These comments from a former Supreme Court judge are incredibly elitist. The law as it stands only guarantees a good death to those who can get to Switzerland – this requires on average £10,000, that the individual still retains the physical strength to travel, and that they have people around them who are in a position to fight a potential criminal charge.

“When someone from the UK is travelling to Switzerland every 8 days for an assisted death, and a further 300 terminally ill people are ending their own lives in England and Wales every year, it is clear that the law is broken. To claim that it should stay the same but that people who are desperate or ‘courageous’ enough to break it should do so is a blatant shirking of responsibility.

“The only solution is reform. Law-makers in Canada and in several American and Australian states have listened to their terminally ill citizens and the public, examined the evidence and concluded that it is perfectly possible to develop transparent assisted dying laws with inbuilt safeguards that allow choice to dying people and robust protection to the rest of society. When 84% of the British public support a change in the law and over 110 million people around the world are covered by assisted dying laws, it is shameful that the UK is lagging so far behind.”

***ENDS***

Notes to Editor:
For further information and interviews with representatives of Dignity in Dying, please contact Ellie Ball at ellie.ball@dignityindying.org.uk / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025.

Populus poll

  • 84% of the British public support a change in the law to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months.
  • Populus interviewed a random sample of 5,695 adults online between 11th March and 24th March 2019.
  • Interviews were conducted across Great Britain, with an increased sample level in Scotland, and the results have been weighted to be representative of all British adults.
  • Polling tables are available here

Ann and Geoff Whaley

  • Geoff Whaley, 80, from Buckinghamshire, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2016.
  • In December 2018, Geoff was given a prognosis of six to nine months.
  • In February 2019, Ann was questioned by police after an anonymous call to social services alerted them of her plan to accompany Geoff to Dignitas for an assisted death.
  • The investigation was eventually dropped, but it could be reopened if new evidence comes to light.
  • On the day of his death at Dignitas on 7 February 2019, an open letter from Geoff was sent to all MPs, urging them to change the law on assisted dying.

The current 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.

International developments

  • Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in eight US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado and Hawaii (January 2019). In April 2019, the Governor of New Jersey signed the Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which is due to come into effect in August 2019.
  • Victoria became the first Australian state to pass a Bill legalising assisted dying for terminally ill people in November 2017. The law will come into effect 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.
  • 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.