A posthumous euthanasia letter to UK MPs

COLUMN

As in New Zealand, assisting a terminally ill person to end his or her life is a criminal offence in the UK, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This extends to helping a person travel to Switzerland, where assisted dying is legal.

On average, every eight days someone travels from the UK to Switzerland to die, at a cost of about $NZ20,000. There have been no prosecutions in the UK arising from this practice, so for practical purposes voluntary euthanasia is only available to those with the financial means.

A case that has attracted much publicity lately is that of Geoffrey Whaley who, before his death, sent an open letter to MPs to draw attention to his plight. His letter follows:

Dear Members of Parliament,
By the time you read this, I will be dead.
On Thursday 7th February 2019, I will have taken medication that will end my life, surrounded by my wife, Ann, my children, Alix and Dominic, and a couple of my dearest friends at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland. With their love and support I have been able to fulfil my final wish: to be in control of my end, rather than endure the immense suffering motor neurone disease had in store for me.
I want to impress upon you the anguish me and my family have experienced, not because of this awful illness (though of course this has been incredibly difficult), but because of the law against assisted dying in this country. The blanket ban on assisted dying has not only forced me to spend thousands of pounds and endure months of logistical hurdles in order to secure a peaceful and dignified death overseas, but it has meant that my final weeks of life have been blighted by visits from social services and police.
Since my diagnosis of MND, an incurable, terminal illness, in 2016, I felt as though bombs have been dropping on me. I gradually lost the use of all four limbs. My ability to speak, swallow and breathe began rapidly deteriorating. I knew my death was inevitable and unavoidable, but I remained strong for my family. I am 80 years old and have lived a full life. I did not fear death, but I did fear the journey. I simply wanted to cut this suffering short by a few months. When I eventually got the “green light” from Dignitas, a weight lifted; I was able to get on with living without the constant mental anguish over my death.
But then, as I was saying my final goodbyes and preparing myself for the end, the final, biggest bomb dropped and I could no longer keep it together. This bomb was in fact an anonymous phone call to social services who informed the police of my plans to go to Switzerland. Within hours Ann and I were facing a criminal investigation. The thought that I might not make it to Switzerland, or that, if I did, Ann might be facing 14 years in jail for helping me, was almost too much to bear.
In 52 years of marriage, Ann had not seen me cry. The day we were contacted by the police, I sobbed.
The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding. Though it is perfectly legal for me make arrangements and travel to Dignitas by myself, the minute anyone else “assists” me in any way — which is essential, due to my condition — they are liable for prosecution.
I had the chance, just over a week before my death, to speak to some MPs and Peers about my experience and my adamant wish that the law should be changed. The overwhelming reaction in the room was one of agreement; however, I am aware that despite huge public support for an assisted dying law, most members of parliament currently oppose it.
I spoke to one MP who had voted against the last assisted dying bill in 2015. The law being proposed was limited to terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months, with strict inbuilt safeguards to protect the vulnerable and anyone else who has not made a clear decision of their own volition. When I pressed her on why she felt people like me should be denied a say over our own death and be forced to suffer, she was unable to articulate an answer.
I want MPs to know that change is urgently needed and that it is achievable — over 100 million people in several American and Australian states and across Canada are covered by assisted dying laws which allow choice to dying people and protection to others. No family should ever have to endure the torment we have undergone in recent weeks, but it will be easier to bear knowing that by sharing it we can contribute to future change. I sincerely hope that you will truly listen to our story and see the suffering you are inflicting by upholding the status quo.

Yours sincerely,
Geoffrey Whaley
Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire
February 7, 2019

As in New Zealand, assisting a terminally ill person to end his or her life is a criminal offence in the UK, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This extends to helping a person travel to Switzerland, where assisted dying is legal.

On average, every eight days someone travels from the UK to Switzerland to die, at a cost of about $NZ20,000. There have been no prosecutions in the UK arising from this practice, so for practical purposes voluntary euthanasia is only available to those with the financial means.

A case that has attracted much publicity lately is that of Geoffrey Whaley who, before his death, sent an open letter to MPs to draw attention to his plight. His letter follows:

Dear Members of Parliament,
By the time you read this, I will be dead.
On Thursday 7th February 2019, I will have taken medication that will end my life, surrounded by my wife, Ann, my children, Alix and Dominic, and a couple of my dearest friends at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland. With their love and support I have been able to fulfil my final wish: to be in control of my end, rather than endure the immense suffering motor neurone disease had in store for me.
I want to impress upon you the anguish me and my family have experienced, not because of this awful illness (though of course this has been incredibly difficult), but because of the law against assisted dying in this country. The blanket ban on assisted dying has not only forced me to spend thousands of pounds and endure months of logistical hurdles in order to secure a peaceful and dignified death overseas, but it has meant that my final weeks of life have been blighted by visits from social services and police.
Since my diagnosis of MND, an incurable, terminal illness, in 2016, I felt as though bombs have been dropping on me. I gradually lost the use of all four limbs. My ability to speak, swallow and breathe began rapidly deteriorating. I knew my death was inevitable and unavoidable, but I remained strong for my family. I am 80 years old and have lived a full life. I did not fear death, but I did fear the journey. I simply wanted to cut this suffering short by a few months. When I eventually got the “green light” from Dignitas, a weight lifted; I was able to get on with living without the constant mental anguish over my death.
But then, as I was saying my final goodbyes and preparing myself for the end, the final, biggest bomb dropped and I could no longer keep it together. This bomb was in fact an anonymous phone call to social services who informed the police of my plans to go to Switzerland. Within hours Ann and I were facing a criminal investigation. The thought that I might not make it to Switzerland, or that, if I did, Ann might be facing 14 years in jail for helping me, was almost too much to bear.
In 52 years of marriage, Ann had not seen me cry. The day we were contacted by the police, I sobbed.
The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding. Though it is perfectly legal for me make arrangements and travel to Dignitas by myself, the minute anyone else “assists” me in any way — which is essential, due to my condition — they are liable for prosecution.
I had the chance, just over a week before my death, to speak to some MPs and Peers about my experience and my adamant wish that the law should be changed. The overwhelming reaction in the room was one of agreement; however, I am aware that despite huge public support for an assisted dying law, most members of parliament currently oppose it.
I spoke to one MP who had voted against the last assisted dying bill in 2015. The law being proposed was limited to terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months, with strict inbuilt safeguards to protect the vulnerable and anyone else who has not made a clear decision of their own volition. When I pressed her on why she felt people like me should be denied a say over our own death and be forced to suffer, she was unable to articulate an answer.
I want MPs to know that change is urgently needed and that it is achievable — over 100 million people in several American and Australian states and across Canada are covered by assisted dying laws which allow choice to dying people and protection to others. No family should ever have to endure the torment we have undergone in recent weeks, but it will be easier to bear knowing that by sharing it we can contribute to future change. I sincerely hope that you will truly listen to our story and see the suffering you are inflicting by upholding the status quo.

Yours sincerely,
Geoffrey Whaley
Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire
February 7, 2019

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Renee Joubert, Waikato - 5 months ago
Martin Hanson quoted Geoffrey Whaley's letter about "taking medication to end his life", which is basically a suicide note.

It contradicts responsible suicide reporting guidelines, and especially without suicide helplines. So here are some.


WHERE TO GET HELP (24/7):

Suicide Crisis Helpline (0508 TAUTOKO) 0508 828 865

Lifeline 0800 54 33 54

Youthline 0800 376 633

Bob Hughes - 5 months ago
Interesting comment from Renee. A suicide note, no doubt. But I was completely unaware suicide helplines extended their compassion to support the wishes of the most desperately ill who wished to die.

Ann David, Waikanae - 5 months ago
I don't know who to feel most sorry for: the poor man who just wanted to procure a peaceful death and escape a hideous one, his poor wife who was dragged off and interrogated for helping her husband achieve his wishes, the poor police whose duty it was to uphold an ass of a law that they probably don't respect any more than the other 70 percent of Britons respect it, or the poor British taxpayer who has to pay for police to waste time on victimless activities.

Clearly Geoffrey Whaley accepted the inevitability of his death. Clearly his desire to die a bit earlier was considered and persistent over time. Clearly nothing on earth could be done to "improve" his situation.

He just wanted a peaceful ending instead of a prolonged, painful and frightening one, or having to surrender to deep sedation - possibly for up to 14 days in terminal sedation, while starving and dehydrating to death slowly.

Is peace too much to ask?

Martin Hanson, Nelson - 5 months ago
Most suicides involve people who are physically well but in a state of emotional crisis due to external factors from which they could, at least in principle, be helped through - leading to a possibility of a long life thereafter.

Geoffrey Whaley's situation could not be more different; his death in the near future was inevitable. His choice was not whether to live or to die, but whether to die peacefully or by choking to death, the most common cause of death from motor neurone disease. For him, there never was any possibility of light at the end of the tunnel.

Renee Joubert's objection to his decision to avoid such suffering leaves us with only two possible inferences: either her misunderstanding of this difference is because she?s not bright enough, or it is wilful.

If the latter, it would seem that she objects to the very principle of ending life in order to avoid inevitable suffering, for either or both of two unstated religious reasons:

1. Suffering has a redemptive value, shortening one's time spent in purgatory; as Mother Teresa put it so delicately, "suffering is a gift from God".

2. Since only God gives life, only God can take it away, so to anticipate God's will is a sin.

I invite Ms Joubert to offer another explanation. Until she does, one can only infer that she has done the campaign for End of Life Choice a massive favour by coming close to revealing the real reason why religious conservatives object so strongly to David Seymour's End Of Life Choice bill.

With friends like this, Maggie Barry, Simon O'Connor and Bill English have no need for political enemies.

Chris O'Brien, Christchurch - 5 months ago
Martin Hanson has painted a grim picture of Geoffrey Whaley's situation and naturally it pulls at the heartstrings. While all of us have sympathy for persons in his situation, there are some important issues which Mr Hanson fails to discuss in this case. For one Geoffrey Whaley was not in a unique situation; millions have died in similar circumstances and without the modern palliative care system that was available to him that make dying involve a lot less suffering than in earlier times. Certainly what faced him was an increasing lack of control, but is that not what happens to most people who deteriorate with old age? Surely that is simply a fact of life. Second, in wanting to be in full control of his death it would appear to me that Mr Whaley has failed to consider the implications his pushing for doctors being able to kill their patients may mean for the vulnerable. Mr Whaley appears to be well educated, resourced, funded and self determining. What will be the plight of those who are not, if he gets his way and the law is changed to permit a doctor to kill or aid in killing patients? What happens when someone's right to die trumps the right of others to live and to believe that safeguards will hold back euthanasia expanding are simply fairy tales. David Seymour's EOLC bill is simply too dangerous to be allowed to progress any further.

Graham Adams, Auckland - 5 months ago
Who apart from Renee Joubert (and Jesuit theologians) would think that a man facing a firing squad who took a vial of cyanide before the bullets could kill him was committing suicide? That is essentially the position Geoffrey Whaley was in. There was no reprieve possible for him and his taking a lethal medication can only be classed as suicide by the sort of reasoning that would also deem those who jumped from the burning World Trade Centre to their certain death to also be suicides. Perhaps Joubert could tell us how she classes these examples and whether newspaper reports of these 9/11 deaths should also have carried contact details for suicide helplines.

Martin Hanson, Nelson - 5 months ago
Chris O'Brien's comment is both disingenuous and evasive. Palliative care can do nothing to prevent people with motor neurone disease from dying from inability to breathe or by choking to death. To describe such a horrible death as "lack of control" and imply that this is what happens to most people who deteriorate with old age is disingenuous in the extreme.
Second, Mr O'Brien carefully evades the real issue, so I'll put it to him in the form of a question: Was Geoffrey Whaley morally wrong to go to Switzerland to be given help to die?
I have put this question to a number of religious conservatives and the answer is always the same: silence or evasion, and I fully expect Mr O'Brien to conform to this pattern.
The issue that dare not speak its name is whether one's life belongs to God or not. Small wonder that campaigners against assisted dying dare not speak of it, for to do so would be to invite contempt and ridicule from the overwhelming majority, for whom empathy for the suffering means more than pious platitudes.

Patricia Butler, Nelson - 5 months ago
VOLUNTARY EUTHANASIA: Renee Joubert and Chris O'Brien are obviously opposed to voluntary euthanasia under any circumstances. They wish to perpetuate our current cruel law, that prevents dying people who request it, from having a peaceful and pain-free death; that forbids merciful physicians from assisting them. They appear to be of one mind with the Catholic Church, who continue to preach to us on ethical matters, in spite of having lost all credibility - 'Suffer the little children . . .' indeed!

All the recent, professionally conducted polls show that the majority of New Zealanders are in favour of David Seymour's End of Life Choice bill, ie, to be able to choose the option of assisted death, should the need arise and they meet the bill's stringent criteria. Opponents of this bill will have the same rights they now have - to wait until death comes, either by palliative sedation or without it.

My family in Belgium are mystified by the arguments put forth here against our proposed bill, by the mostly Catholic opponents. They speak of the peace of mind now enjoyed in their country, with its compassionate legislation. This is what most of us here in New Zealand are calling on our politicians to give us.

Chris O'Brien, Christchurch - 5 months ago
Martin Hansen's comments in relation to Renee Joubert simply show this man is totally and absolutely fixated on trying to prove that opposition to euthanasia is solely based on religious arguments. If that is the case then why do almost all jurisdictions in the world prohibit doctors killing their patients? As far as I'm aware the majority of countries are not Christian and yet seem to have come to the (non-religious argument-based) conclusion that euthanasia is just too dangerous for a civil society. Why do the NZMA and most organisations that work with the dying in NZ reject euthanasia? Why do almost all organisations that work with the disabled oppose euthanasia? There is an old adage that we should think carefully about: "Hard cases make bad law". What is this bee in Hansen's bonnet really about the Christian religion all about anyway?

Graham Adams, Auckland - 5 months ago
Chris O'Brien, I doubt that Martin Hanson believes that all opposition to assisted dying arises from religious beliefs. Nevertheless, while all the world is obviously not Christian, all the major religions disapprove of assisted dying and their influence is still pervasive (even where their numbers are relatively small, as in NZ).
The RC, as it happens, is the most vehement and obdurate of the lot, including in New Zealand. As Peter Brown, the architect of 2003's assisted dying bill told me, his most influential opponents were the NZMA (despite its small coverage of doctors) and the Catholic church.
The Catholic church does not frame its opposition in religious terms for obvious reasons - it has so little moral authority left in NZ society that it cannot afford to show its hand - but it is very busy behind the scenes instructing its adherents to oppose the bill (without mentioning religion!) The debate would be much clearer if the Catholic church declared its position openly and stated that no matter how strict the safeguards, it would never, ever agree to a bill passing.
My understanding of Hanson's position is that he wants the church's proxies - including Bill English, Maggie Barry and Renee Joubert - to admit that their Catholic beliefs mean that they will never accept any assisted dying bill, no matter what the evidence for its safety and no matter how many of the population want it either.
They can't afford to do that, however, because of the public revulsion that would follow.

Chris O'Brien, Christchurch - 5 months ago
In reply to Martin Hanson's reply to my comment. I'd like to ask him a question. If euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide were allowed for people with motor neurone disease, can he guarantee that the grounds for euthanasia will not be extended to allow doctors to kill their patients in other circumstances? Of course he can not, nor would it be possible for the following simple reason. Once euthanasia is decriminalised for one 'class' of person it becomes a right, in effect a human right. Human rights by their very nature are universal and must eventually be extended to all. No, once the door has been opened then as we have seen in the Netherlands and Belgium, a never-ending expansion of grounds becomes inevitable. Martin Hanson has commented in his op ed pieces in The Herald on the euthanasia topic, that there is no slippery slope in Holland. If that is the case, how does he explain this news item in the British Guardian?
Netherlands may extend assisted dying to those who feel 'life is complete'
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/13/netherlands-may-allow-assisted-dying-for-those-who-feel-life-is-complete
Martin Hanson may be an ardent advocate of doctors being able to kill their patients but he has a very poor understanding of the implications for society if such laws ever see the light of day. Mr Hanson is to be commended for his concern for those who are suffering, but he would do better to be an advocate for better palliative care than pushing for laws that may seem to aid a few but would in the end harm many.

Martin Hanson, Nelson - 5 months ago
In answer to Mr O'Brien's most recent question, I couldn't guarantee that the grounds for euthanasia would not be extended; that would be up to the people drafting the legislation. But even if I could, I wouldn't want to because I don't believe my life belongs to anyone's god; it belongs to me and to my family. Consequently, I support broader legislation that would give people who have no possibility of relief from suffering to bring their lives to an end. (It would therefore exclude people who are physically healthy but are going through an acute emotional crisis - in other words, those who account for most of the suicide statistics.)
The legislation I would like to see would allow such people to die as they do at Dignitas in Switzerland. The patient would take the drug himself or herself. There would be no direct medical involvement and Mr O'Brien wouldn't be able to talk about "doctors killing patients".
As for the Guardian article to which Mr O'Brien refers, I strongly agree with the legislation proposed. Legislation governing voluntary euthanasia will continue to evolve, as happens in all areas of human and humane thought. Democratic governments will be guided by the opinions of those they represent.
Chris O'Brien is obviously not concerned with the wishes of the majority, but wishes to perpetuate the medieval values of a dictatorial minority. King Canute attempting to hold back the tide comes to mind. No one is trying to interfere with Mr O'Brien's life choices - the rest of us are determined New Zealand will become a more compassionate country in which to live.

Chris O'Brien, Christchurch - 1 month ago
Well Mr Hanson, you make the following comment in relation to my last comment. "I support broader legislation that would give people who have no possibility of relief from suffering to bring their lives to an end. (It would therefore exclude people who are physically healthy but are going through an acute emotional crisis - in other words, those who account for most of the suicide statistics.)"

If that is indeed so then I guess articles like the following article in that most ultra-conservative of newspaper the Washington Post (I jest!) are simply fairy tales Mr Hanson.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/europes-morality-crisis-euthanizing-the-mentally-ill/2016/10/19/c75faaca-961c-11e6-bc79-af1cd3d2984b_story.html?utm_term=.6d4099eb63bb

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