Changing the law on assisted dying

Dignity in Dying campaign
Martyn Underhill, Police & Crime Commissioner for Dorset, calls for a better , safer and kinder law on assisted dying.

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This is a guest post by Martyn Underhill Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset.

Last summer my friend and colleague Ron Hogg, Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

This is a terminal neurological condition that attacks the nervous system and gradually reduces a person’s ability to move, communicate, swallow and breathe until they die. Having been forced into retirement shortly after his diagnosis, Ron died in December.

In his final months, Ron called for a change in the law on assisted dying. He, like the vast majority of the population, wanted to see a law that would allow dying people to choose the manner and timing of their deaths, subject to stringent safeguards.

Ron’s experiences lit a fire beneath me and many of my colleagues across the country. In October, I coordinated a letter in which almost half of the PCCs for England and Wales wrote to Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, asking him to launch an inquiry into how the assisted dying ban was working in practice.

Reviewing the law

I am pleased to say that this week, Buckland said he was actively considering such a review. This is welcome news and shows there is a clear understanding in Government that there are problems with the law as it stands. I hope the Justice Secretary will commit to this inquiry in the near future so  we can all work towards a better law.

As a former police officer and now as a PCC, I know too well the damage that can be done by a law that is not fit for purpose. Laws that do not attract public confidence are difficult to enforce and almost impossible to prosecute.

Even worse, I know from my years of service that prohibition does not eliminate a practice, indeed in many cases this will simply drive it underground. That is the case with assisted dying, where Britons are travelling to Switzerland at the rate of one a week.

Hundreds of dying people take their own lives at home every year, behind closed doors, without any oversight or involvement from medical professionals. Those who lack the funds or strength for these options may be forced to suffer against their wishes in their last days and weeks of life.

Martyn Underhill, PCC for Dorset
Martyn Underhill, PCC for Dorset

Protecting vulnerable people

As the national PCC lead on suicide, the protection of vulnerable people is at the forefront of my concerns. I and many colleagues believe there are insufficient checks and balances in place to prevent abuse or coercion under the current law.

For instance, in the last ten years, 152 cases have been referred to the CPS by the police. But in that same period well over 300 Britons have travelled to Dignitas, let alone those assisted to die by other Swiss organisations, or those who have taken the law into their own hands in this country.

The police, prosecution and social services are simply unaware of the extent of these cases, which makes it impossible to justify a law that is supposedly founded on the safeguarding of vulnerable people. And because these cases are almost always investigated after a person has died, there is no protection for the very people who are supposed to be safeguarded.

So, if police investigations are rare and prosecutions even more so, why should we, as law enforcement professionals, be so concerned? Because it puts dying people, their families and the police into dreadful positions.

Consider Ann Whaley, whose husband Geoff travelled to Dignitas in February last year. She was interviewed under caution by the local domestic violence team just weeks before Geoff was due to travel. Not only were she and her husband of more than 50 years terrified of prosecution, they were even more scared that Geoff would be denied the dignified death he wanted. Ann said police officers had been professional and compassionate, but evidently distressed by having to intervene in such a clearly loving family at a time of great sadness.

Consider also Mavis Eccleston, who in February 2018 attempted to take her own life alongside her husband Dennis, who was suffering from end-stage bowel cancer. They had been married for more than sixty years and Dennis was adamant he wanted to control his death. Mavis survived her attempt and found herself charged with murder and manslaughter.

After 18 months of investigation and prosecution, she was acquitted unanimously by a jury at Stafford Crown Court. But think of the distress this family suffered. Think of the resources spent to prosecute a case that, under a more compassionate law, need never have happened.

Public confidence

Faced with a law that does not command public confidence, that is routinely being broken by normally law-abiding families, and that is causing real suffering for both investigators and the investigated, we must surely accept the need for a review.

Robert Buckland should be congratulated for taking these concerns seriously and for examining these terrible cases. It is time for a better law, a safer law, and a kinder law for all of society.

Thanks to Dignity in Dying for supplying the header image.

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5 Responses

  1. This law is totally inadequate people are suffering and dying in horrendous pain when they should be allowed a pain free death , I have had breast cancer I’m ok at moment but if I was terminal l would have to rethink my options, my husband also has a none curable cancer , so to watch someone you love dying before your eyes is not something I wish , if it came to it I would consider Switzerland but I would much rather die with my family! This law needs changing.

  2. If we want to die it is down to us .so many people committing suicide .this is not right .my mother had brain cancer .my father had a severe stroke .they both had THE DRIVES at the back of the beds killing them quicker full of morphine so you the government do .do it .so it’s absolute rubbish why is it england will be the last country to make it legal .its a bloody joke

  3. I like Martin Underhill, a great police officer, no doubt an even better PCC, but above all an Independent. And he is quite correct to call out ‘assisted dying’ for what it is – suicide – and draw it into his purview as national PCC lead. But it would surely be wrong for police officers even to tiptoe in where medical ethicists fear to tread. The best way to protect the vulnerable person who feels they no longer have a life worth living, or feel terrified about the prospect of losing control at the end of life, continues to be free access to evidence-based psychological therapy. Dignitas offers no such protection, and i agree a review of the obscene traffic in human souls heading for Zürich is long overdue. Divergence from European standards in this respect should not intimidate us. It takes a great deal of courage to plan and execute a one-way trip to Switzerland, but it is precisely this same courage that sustains thousands of physically handicapped, emotionally scarred and terminally ill citizens the length and breadth of the UK every passing day.

  4. I think it is all rubbish! I hope that if I ever decide I have had enough, I wouldn’t want to be fobbed off by people trying to find me reasons why I would like to live. I would be quite happy to just have to an injection, even if done by the local vet.

  5. This is a stupid and cruel law when everyone knows about these horrible illnesses.If I was unlucky and got that sort of death sentence I would definitely take my own life.I was a carer when I was working and see some terrible suffering when it could easily been stopped it they asked for a end to it.

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