10:07, February 08 69 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-08 10:07:07
My wife ended her life at Dignitas. Then the police came to talk to me

I could not fail to be moved when I read the Whaley family’s story this week. Geoff Whaley, who had terminal motor neurone disease, died on Thursday morning in the arms of his wife Ann at the Dignitas assisted dying facility in Switzerland. He was able to fulfil his final wish to have control over his end and die peacefully – rather than endure the final months of agony that his illness had in store for him.

Their carefully laid plans had been jeopardised at the last moment when an anonymous call was made to social services, alerted the police of their intentions. Ann, acting purely out of love and compassion, was made to feel like a criminal for supporting her husband. Anyone would feel for the family, but this affected me more than most.

On 15 November 2016 at approximately 11.45am British time, my dear wife Helen died at Dignitas – peacefully, painlessly and quickly, just as Geoff did. She was 59, and we had been together 33 years.

Helen had been living with a rare lung condition, and by 2016 her lung capacity had plummeted to just 15%. Every day was a painful struggle and it was clear she was dying. We realised that palliative care in the UK would not be enough to allow her the peaceful death she wanted, and after prolonged thought and discussion we made the heartbreaking decision to travel to Dignitas. I was to some extent prepared for the months of organisation and the traumatic journey to Switzerland, but what I did not anticipate was the nightmare I experienced on my return to the UK.

Within hours of arriving home, the police were knocking at my door. Over the next seven months, when I should have been left in peace to grieve for Helen, I was questioned under caution and subjected to a police investigation. While Helen had done all the planning herself, I was under suspicion because I had accompanied her to Dignitas, and that was enough for me to be investigated under the Suicide Act 1961. Anyone “assisting a suicide” is liable for up to 14 years in prison. The investigation against me was eventually dropped, and the same goes for Ann Whaley unless new information comes to light – but we have been made to feel like criminals for doing right by our loved ones.

During those months after Helen’s death, my first instinct was to hide from the world and hope it would all go away. I still feel that I suffer with the trauma this caused, which exacerbated my existing depression. I did not comprehend then, nor do I now, the moral or legal rationale for such an invasion of privacy and a person’s autonomy.

As I understand it, assisted dying is about compassion, care and, importantly, the right of a terminally ill person to choose when, and in what way, their life should end: when the individual concerned is mentally competent, I don’t believe it is another person’s right to obstruct this. Helen, a former college lecturer, was one of the most rational and lucid people that I have ever met.

Is not the standard of a society governed by the way it treats its most vulnerable and weakest members? Surely the dying are among the most deserving of our compassion. Do we not have a duty to respect another’s decision over their own body, even if one may not wish it for oneself? Any assisted dying law would of course require strict eligibility criteria and robust safeguards. This has been possible in several US states, across Canada and in Victoria, Australia – there is no reason why the same cannot be achieved here.

MPs have the power to make this change, yet despite huge public support for it they have failed to act. My own MP, Tom Watson, abstained from voting on the last assisted dying bill, but after meeting me and another constituent whose husband had experienced a horrific death from cancer, he agreed that the current legal framework is inadequate and needs urgent change. It appears, however, that most MPs are happy to ignore these tragic stories and the views of more than 80% of the public who support a change in the law on assisted dying. They cannot continue sitting idly by as more stories like Geoff and Ann’s and mine and Helen’s come to light. To me, this is a matter of social justice. In Helen’s memory, and now in Geoff’s, we must fight on.

James Howley is a former college lecturer

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