If you were suffering a terminal illness, with only a limited time left to live, and with the certain prospect of your suffering cruelly increasing before your death finally releases you, should you be able to seek help to die sooner? It is a question that seems to face increasing numbers of people, struck down by incurable illnesses that kill only slowly and it is one that has bedevilled our society for many years now. But those who ask it come up against the same stern answer. No, you cannot seek such help because the law forbids it. Is the law right to do so?

Harrowing stories of people facing such unimaginably cruel ends to their lives seem to be becoming ever more frequent. And each time they reach the headlines they attract strong responses both from those who think the law is helping to perpetuate unnecessary suffering and from those who fear that changing the law could have consequences that might cause even more suffering.

This week yet another case brought the issue once again to the fore.

Geoff Whaley, an 80-year-old retired chartered accountant from Buckinghamshire, was diagnosed two years ago with Motor Neurone Disease, an affliction he knew would gradually deprive him of the use of every part of his body, and which is incurable. He decided that ultimately he would take himself to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. If doctors there satisfied themselves that his illness was terminal, that he did not have long to live and, most importantly, that he was taking the decision to end his life prematurely of his own free will, they would provide him with a lethal drink which he would administer to himself. He would then be dead within the hour.

In December Mr Whaley was told by his doctors that he had between six and nine months left. So he decided that while he still had the physical capacity to pick up the lethal drink and to swallow it, he should make his way to Zurich without delay. He asked Ann, his wife, to make the necessary travel arrangements as he was no longer capable of physically doing so himself.

The Whaleys had made no secret of their intentions among their family and friends, from whom they received much support. But after an anonymous tip-off to the social services, the police became involved. It became immediately apparent to the officers who visited him at home that Mr Whaley was wholly mentally competent to take the decision and that he was doing so on what he regarded as rational grounds. Suicide is not a criminal offence so the police had no need to take further action with regard to him. But they then interviewed Ann Whaley, twice under caution. Under Section Two of the 1961 Suicide Act it is an offence to assist anyone in committing suicide, with a penalty of up to fourteen years in prison for anyone convicted of doing so. Was Mrs Whaley guilty of such an offence?

Mr Whaley told the BBC’s home affairs editor, Mark Easton, that until this point he had been dealing with the planning of his own death in a wholly calm and controlled manner, but that after the police intervention ‘I became completely terrified that control was going to be taken away from me. It shook me to the core’. He feared that his passport might be taken away, depriving him of the opportunity to travel to Switzerland. And of course he feared for the possible consequences for his wife.  

She said that it was the first time in fifty-two years of marriage that she had seen him cry. But she had no doubt that she was right to be helping him in carrying out his plan to end his life early. She said: ‘When you have a husband as brave as mine, you have to support him’.

The Whaleys travelled to Zurich days later and Geoff Whaley took his life on Thursday morning. Ann Whaley came back to England to face her grief and to the fear of what might happen to her. Although the police have said they do not intend to press charges against her, the case remains open and if new information comes to light, they may need to review the decision.

The Whaley case has not reached the courts and may never do so. The Crown Prosecution Service issued guidance some time ago saying that where it is clear that someone implicated in assisting a suicide has been ‘wholly motivated by compassion’ and that the person committing suicide took a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision’ to do so, then placing charges is unlikely. But some who have faced the same predicament as the Whaleys have actually chosen to seek help from the courts. Each time, as with the most recent case of Tony Nicklinson, another sufferer from Motor Neurone Disease, the courts, including the Supreme Court, have adopted an immensely sympathetic manner but responded that the law is the law and that they are in no position to override it.

That’s why many people argue that the suffering of many terminally-dying people, such as Geoff Whaley and Tony Nicklinson – and the suffering of those who want to help them – can be allayed only by a change in the law.

Advocates of change have, at least for the moment, limited ambitions. They wish to change the law only in respect of people who are both terminally ill and still mentally capable of taking the decision to end their own lives. If a judge rules that both conditions are satisfied, then it should be lawful (they argue) for such a patient to seek help in ending their life prematurely and for the person providing that help to be able to do so lawfully. Mrs Whaley would then have been able to book flights to Zurich without fearing she was breaking the law.

But opponents of such a change in the law make several objections. In the first place, they say, it would expose those wondering whether or not to end their lives prematurely to emotional pressure, even from their families. They say the apparent safeguard that someone in this position would have to demonstrate they were of sound mind would be inadequate, since someone wholly in command of their mental faculties can still be susceptible to emotional pressure. Such a person might be in two minds about whether to end their own life but feel they ought to do so ‘to save their families’. Only keeping the law as it can guard against such pressure, real or imagined.

The second objection is that legally allowing a third party to help someone to kill themselves will in many cases mean a doctor being the third party. This possibility has divided doctors themselves. Those doctors who support a change in the law argue that it is their job to relieve suffering and that to help someone suffering from a terminal illness by assisting them in dying early is precisely the relieving of suffering. But other doctors equally strongly believe that such a change in the law would radically alter the relationship between doctor and patient. In swearing the Hippocratic Oath, they argue, doctors commit themselves primarily to ‘doing no harm’, so deliberately ending a patient’s life is utterly inconsistent with what a doctor is supposed to do, they argue.  

The Royal College of Physicians is split down the middle on this question. A vote taken in 2014 established the college’s opposition to doctors’ involvement in assisted dying, but another vote is to be taken soon. The very fact that the decision is to be revisited so quickly after the last vote alarms doctors who continue to oppose a change in the law.

The third objection is that although the sort of change proposed now may be limited, it may turn out to be a ‘slippery slope’. Opponents of the change fear that it could well lead to legalised euthanasia, a much broader licence to help people to die that some campaigners do indeed advocate.

It was these arguments which caused the Assisted Dying Bill to be thrown out by parliament when it was debated in 2015. Its advocate, the former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, continues to argue that the law will have to change. Of the Whaley case he said that it was ‘monstrous’ for Ann Whaley to be put in the position she found herself and described the existing law quite simply as a ‘total pig’.

Is he right? Should we change the law so that the likes of Geoff Whaley, Tony Nicklinson and many others to come, can seek help from others when they want to die? Or is it too risky a move?

What’s your view? Let us know.  

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