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'I Believe in My Human Right to Dignity': British Man's Suicide Reignites Euthanasia Debate

Jeffrey Spector traveled to Switzerland with his family to commit suicide, as UK politicians prepare to debate changing laws on assisted dying that campaigners say are cruel and outdated.
May 26, 2015, 4:50pm
The Dignitas premises in Switzerland. Photo via EPA

"Rather than go late, I am jumping the gun. I am calling it the least worst option." Jeffrey Spector, a 54-year-old British businessman who traveled to Switzerland to end his life by euthanasia on Monday, admitted he was going "too early."

But he said he preferred to choose to die while he was still in complete control, before the tumor that was growing in his spine caused his paralysis from the neck down.

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In an interview released to press by the Swiss NGO Dignitas, which assists people in dying, Spector said his family disagreed with his decision to take his life when he did, but he believed it was in their best "long-term" interests.

'If I am paralyzed and cannot speak, then what hope is there?'

"Some people will criticize me, but do not judge me," said Spector, whose death has reignited the debate about assisted dying in the UK. "I believe in my human right to dignity. I want the ability to have a cup of tea and hold a phone — I want to be able to do those things myself.

"I know I am going too early but I had consistent thoughts without peer pressure. It had to be a settled decision by a sound mind. If I am paralyzed and cannot speak, then what hope is there?"

The married father-of-three, who was diagnosed with spinal cancer six years ago, flew to Switzerland as assisted suicide is illegal in the UK, choosing to be filmed for the last week of his life.

He is just one of dozens of British people who travel abroad each year to seek professional help committing suicide, according to pressure group Dignity in Dying, which says the UK legal situation forces many others to unnecessarily suffer prolonged, painful deaths.

Spector's death comes as Scottish MPs prepare to vote on Wednesday on an Assisted Suicide Bill which would allow people with terminal or certain chronic illnesses to be helped to die.

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They will debate and vote on the general principles of the bill — then if they vote in favor it will pass to a second stage where amendments can be tabled.

Meanwhile, an Assisted Dying Bill will be brought back before Britain's House of Lords during this parliamentary year, where the legislation gained massive support in 2014. The bill made it through to the final stages of approval — after which it would have passed to the House of Commons, which has the power to turn bills into legislation — before it ran out of time to be completed before the recent General Election.

That law would allow mentally competent people with a terminal prognosis of six months or less to request life-ending medication from a doctor, while the Scottish bill is much broader, allowing people with "a terminal or life-shortening illness" to get help from a "licensed facilitator" in committing suicide. Critics say its wording is much too ambiguous, but almost three-quarters of Scots support the bill in principle, according to a recent poll.

The largest ever survey on the subject conducted across the UK in March found that 82 percent of the population wanted to see assisted dying made legal. A further 44 percent said they would be willing to break the law to help a loved one die.

Currently anyone who helps someone take their lives in the UK can face prosecution and a jail sentence of 14 years, under a law campaigners say is "cruel and outdated."

'People should be able to choose the time and manner in which they die, not be forced into prolonged, horrible deaths.'

Mickey Charouneau, a spokesperson for Dignity in Dying, cited the case of Heather Pratten who in 2000 was arrested and charged with murder of her son — who had the degenerative, genetic Huntingdon's disease — after sitting with him while he took a fatal dose of heroin and putting a pillow over his face as he slipped into a coma. After a year on bail, Pratten was given a 12-month suspended sentence.

In another UK case, David March was charged with murder in 2006 after helping his wife, who had suffered with multiple sclerosis for 20 years, commit suicide on her third attempt. He arrived home to find her with a plastic bag around her head and sat with her for half an hour, at one stage tightening the string around her neck. The charge was eventually dropped to aiding and abetting suicide and March received a nine-month suspended sentence.

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In 2010 the UK's Director of Public Prosecutions issued new guidelines saying people who assisted others commit suicide out of compassion should not be prosecuted. But Charouneau told VICE News while people were no longer prosecuted for assisting suicide, police investigations still took place, leaving those who wanted to die "hugely fearful" about seeking advice or assistance from doctors or loved ones.

"In the UK it is a massive gray area what counts as assisting someone to die," he said. "People are scared of getting anyone into trouble meaning they are forced to do this underground, often alone, turning to the internet when they should be able to turn to healthcare professionals."

Buying drugs online is risky and there were cases where people had been left alive in a worse condition than they were before, he said.

"People should be able to choose the time and manner in which they die, not be forced into prolonged, horrible deaths," Charouneau said. "In reality, evidence shows that very few people will actually choose to have an assisted death, but just being able to talk about it and know that the option is there brings people huge comfort."

Anti-euthanasia campaigners say legalizing assisted death can help people with malicious motives persuade or coerce people into suicide. But Dignity with Dying and other campaign groups say that legalizing and regulating assisted suicide would actually help prevent such cases.

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"The best way to protect vulnerable people is surely to make sure discussions about suicide can be had in the open before that person dies, when you can hear their views," said Charouneau. "Not wait until they have died and investigate the person who helped them, without being able to hear from the principal witness."

Since Dignitas was founded in 1998, it has helped hundreds of people from across Europe to commit suicide. More people from Britain commit suicide with the help of Dignitas than any other European country apart from Germany.

This was despite the fact that the UK was recognized as having some of the best palliative care in the world, said Charouneau — illustrating how this was not always sufficient in preventing suffering.

"We do have excellent palliative care but that won't work 100 percent of time for everyone. There are people who will still die in pain," he said. "And as long we have as this cruel outdated law we will always have people being forced to go underground or travel abroad — or suffer prolonged, horrific deaths."

'I am a proud person. A dignified person. It is me doing it'

Regional newspaper reporter Gareth Vickers spoke to Spector in the days before his death about his decision. "He was very calm and very clear," Vickers told Prolific North. "He had been a member of Dignitas for six years, so this was not a decision he had taken overnight."

Speaking to Vickers in an interview published by the Blackpool Gazette, Spector said he didn't want to be left paralyzed with someone else having to take care of him.

"I am a proud person. A dignified person. It is me doing it," he said. "A man wants the best for his family, not for himself. I want my kids to enjoy their lives. If they cared for me and I got better, fine. But I won't. I know it sounds stupid, but it is the knowing there is an end to it."

Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc