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Assisted Suicide Debate Highlighted by Starvation of UK Grandmother

An 86-year-old grandmother starved herself to death as she said she had "no alternative" under current British law. That may soon change.

by Sally Hayden
Oct 20 2014, 9:15pm

Photo by Sheena876

The debate around assisted suicide has gained pace in the UK after it was reported that an 86-year-old grandmother starved herself to death because she said that British law left her with "no alternative."

A week before she died on October 1, Jean Davies told the Sunday Times that what she was going through was "intolerable." "It is hell. I can't tell you how hard it is." Davies didn't have a terminal illness but had chronic back pain and frequent fainting fits, among other conditions.

The Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by Lord Falconer, will debated for a second time by the UK's House of Lords next month. Its provisions would not have covered Davies's death, but the proposed legislation would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill and mentally competent patients who request them. Two independent doctors would be required confirm that the patient had made an informed decision.

More than 300 people with a terminal illness take their lives in the UK each year, a figure that is replicated around the world in other countries where assisted suicide is illegal. The Canadian Supreme Court is currently revisiting the issue, though the plaintiffs who originally took the case have since passed away.

In the US, Philadelphia nurse Barbara Mancini was arrested and charged with assisting the suicide of her terminally ill 93-year-old father by handing him a bottle of morphine in February 2013. Her case was thrown out by Pennsylvania judge in February 2014. Mancini told her story on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday. 

In Tasmania, Australia, Gideon Cordover was 19 when his father ended his own life. Robert Cordover was diagnosed with motor neuron disease after he woke up one morning and realized he had lost the ability to speak. "He had seen his mother die from the same disease, so he knew exactly what was in store for him," Gideon explained to VICE News. "He knew the natural way for him to die from it was to choke on his own saliva and drown, and he knew that this was a terminal, incurable disease for which there was no chance of remission or recovery."

Gideon said that in the later stages of his illness his father could still hold a pen. "At one stage he wrote: 'One blink for yes and two blinks for no isn't good enough.' And he would often write down things like that his body was a coffin, and he was just kind of trapped inside this functionless body waiting for death."

Robert began asking medical professionals about his options, but the answers he received were vague. "In fact the head of a hospital once said to him: 'Don't talk to me about voluntary euthanasia, you'll be dead by February.'"

He then began researching methods of suicide alone in his study, for fear of his family being prosecuted if he discussed it with them. "He was forced to break the law for the first time in his life and smuggle drugs back into the state on a plane," Gideon explained.

On June 22, 2009, Gideon's whole family came back to Tasmania. "We had a nice lunch, a nice dinner, and we sang songs around the piano. He couldn't participate, because he had no voice anymore, but he was there to enjoy it… And finally he gave us all a big hug and went away to his bedroom." His family wasn't aware that he planned to die that night, until they found his body several hours later.

Gideon has campaigned for Dying With Dignity NSW since his father's death. He also works for the organization in a role where he has taken hundreds of calls from people of all ages and backgrounds who want the same thing. "Overwhelmingly they just want a sense of control, which is something that their illness has taken away from them. They want to know that they're going to be able to determine when the threshold of pain becomes too much."

Gideon told VICE News that the current system in both Australia and the UK "forces doctors into either lying or not engaging with patients for the best patient outcome. Compassionate doctors should be allowed in their good judgment to help people, if that's what they want."

He believes the reason this hasn't been legislated on is that "often terminally ill people don't have the voice and the energy to be able to make their issue known."

Australia's 'Dr. Death' under fire for helping an alleged murderer commit suicide. Read more here.

Dr. Andrew Fergusson was a doctor in southeast London for a decade and sat on the UK's General Medical Council for four years. He is now on the board of Care Without Killing, an organization that campaigns against any change in the British law. He told VICE News that the language used around this topic is a "deliberate attempt to soften what's going on."

Fergusson added that palliative care is the answer, rather than assisted suicide. "I think a lot of patients would have better deaths with their symptoms controlled by natural care," he said, though also adding that doctors need to know when to stop treatment.

When about personal autonomy, Fergusson replied: "I don't think autonomy can ever be absolute. The law interferes all the time in decisions we take about life or death matters… and it's no surprise in these situations where other people might be harmed that the law imposes limits."

He said that when he practiced as a doctor he noticed that the elderly often expressed to him that they felt like a burden on their families. "Changing the law puts much larger numbers of people under pressure."

Fergusson added that he worries any opening in the law will encourage further movement. "As soon as you take into law the idea that there are some hard cases where we will allow people, other people will simply push that law because of human rights: 'It's not fair. Why them, why not me?'"

When Lord Falconer first proposed the Assisted Dying Bill in July, he said that the current legal situation permitted the wealthy to travel abroad, while others were left "in despair" and facing "a lonely, cruel death." He added that there were "no safeguards in terms of undue pressure now," and that many worried so much about implicating their loved ones that they took their lives by "hoarding pills or putting a plastic bag over their heads." The bill will be back in front of the House of Lords on November 7.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Image via Flickr

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