Physician assisted dying: latest developments
26 February 2019
In January we published episode 63 of Law Pod UK featuring Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying. DID campaigns for a change in the law to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill people to hasten their own death in specific situations. Sarah referred in that interview to a poll that was about to be conducted of the members of the Royal College of Physicians, who have hitherto opposed assisted dying. The members are being asked whether they individually support a legal change to permit assisted dying, and what they think the RCP’s position should be. The RCP has said that it will move to a neutral position unless at least 60% of votes in a poll being sent out in the first week of February are either in favour of or opposed to a change in the law. The results will be announced in March but the poll has had a bumpy ride, including a threat of judicial review by one of its members for conducting the exercise as a “sham poll with a rigged outcome.” The Christian charity Duty of Care has called for signatures from doctors and medical students to a petition objecting to the poll.
While that has been going on, DID has supported the family of a man suffering from motor neurone disease. On 7 February Geoff Whaley travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life.
Before he died, Mr Whaley wrote an open letter all MPs to impress upon them the need for a change in the law after his wife was reported to the police, in an anonymous phone call, as a person potentially assisting someone to end their life. The Whaley’s MP Cheryl Gillan raised the family’s story in the Commons during Business of the House.
Geoff [and his wife] had to suffer the added mental anguish of facing a criminal investigation at a time when the family, and most of all Geoff, wanted to prepare his goodbyes and fulfil his last wish in peace. May I ask the Leader of the House if we can have a debate in Government time so that we can re-examine this area of law, particularly in the light of this amazing man’s efforts to give terminally ill people a choice over the way they leave this world, and to afford protection to their loved ones?
Mrs Whaley is also seeking a meeting with the Justice Secretary David Gauke.
Dignity in Dying organised an oral question in the Lords on 14 February concerning the Crown Prosecution Service’s Policy for Prosecutors in respect of cases of encouraging or assisting suicide. In the debate that followed this question, Baroness Blackstone asked whether it was a good use of police time
to interview, under caution, the wife of a dying man who wishes to choose how he dies? In the light of the Whaley story and loving families being treated like criminals, does the Minister think that the law on assisted dying is working well?
Promising though some of the contributions were, the debate stalled at the point where previous efforts have foundered; defence of the current CPS policy on the basis that very few prosecutions have been carried out. Baroness Meacher expressed the frustration brought about by this unsatisfactory state of affairs. Geoff Whaley, she pointed out, only managed to die a dignified death in Switzerland because he could afford it. Most people do not have the means to take their family to Switzerland for such a death, or they cannot get the medical report from their doctor to enable them to have such a death.
Does the Minister agree that, in a civilised society, someone in Geoff Whaley’s position should be able to avoid months of being unable to swallow, eat, drink, speak or move—totally, therefore, cut off from communication? Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues what can be done to change the law?
You can read the debate in Hansard here. For an interesting perspective on how other laws play out against people caught in the web of prohibitions around assisted dying, read my post about the case of Ninian v Findlay concerning a widow resisting forfeiture as a result of taking her husband for a medically assisted death at Dignitas. Section 2 of the 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist the suicide or attempted suicide of another person. The forfeiture rules prevent an individual benefiting from the assets of a deceased if that person has “unlawfully aided, abetted, counselled or procured the death” of the other.