Julia Irvine 7 Feb 2019 12:10pm

Former FCA opts to "die with dignity" at Dignitas

Motor neurone sufferer Geoff Whaley added his voice to the campaign to legalise assisted dying before choosing to die this morning at Dignitas in Switzerland

Last week the former chartered accountant, who resigned his ICAEW membership last year because of his illness, visited Parliament for a meeting with MPs and peers to discuss changes to the law. And in a moving interview with the BBC, broadcast this morning, he said it would be “absolutely fantastic” if the law was changed.

“I want the Act to be designed so that any rational person who is in full control of his mind and who makes that decision, can be helped in any way by other people without any fear of prosecution,” he told BBC home editor Mark Easton.

Whaley had been planning to visit Dignitas since his diagnosis in 2016 because he did not want to experience the final stages of his illness. Motor neurone disease, he said, was “one of those illnesses that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, particularly the final weeks or possibly months which are – or can be – particularly gruesome”.

Although suicide is no longer illegal, helping someone to carry out a suicide is. Usually, those accompanying loved ones to Dignitas face police investigation afterwards but, unusually, the police became involved in Whaley’s case beforehand following an anonymous tip-off to social services.

Within hours of the tip-off, two police arrived from the domestic abuse unit and Whaley’s wife Ann was interviewed under caution both at home and at the local police station.

She told the BBC, “I’ve never seen Geoff cry in 52 years of marriage but I found him with his head in his hands and he was just sobbing. He said, ‘Everything that I fought for to protect you has all been blown apart by this anonymous phone call.’”

“Having been at peace with myself and family for the past two years, I became completely terrified that the control was going to be taken from me,” Whaley said.

He had believed that being established with Dignitas demonstrated he was “the right sort of person in full mental state”, and that would “be the end of it”.

Currently, the police have stated that they will be taking no further action against the Whaleys, but warned them that any further information which might come to light in future would be reassessed and the investigation could be re-opened.

Whaley decided that the time had come to put his plan into action when he lost the use of all his limbs and could no longer do anything for himself. Yesterday he flew to Zurich with his wife, two children and two close friends.

Before he left, he wrote an open letter to MPs which has been posted on the Dignity in Dying website, entitled By the Time You Read This, I Will be Dead.

In it he tells them bluntly that UK law had robbed him of control over his death and forced him 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.”

In the BBC interview, Ann said she had never questioned what she was doing for Whaley. “When you have a husband as brave as him, you have to support him. He’s the one being strong for me.

“I just want him to be here but I believe that what he has chosen to do is the right thing for him. I wouldn’t put an animal through what he would have to go through if went to the end.

“I just wish the law would allow me to have him for a little longer, I really do.”

In recent years there have been several unsuccessful attempts in the UK, both in parliament and the courts, to change the law, despite evidence of growing support for assisted dying from both the general public and the medical profession.

According to Dignity in Dying, the campaigning UK charity, 82% of the British public back assisted dying for terminally ill adults, while 54% of doctors support or are neutral about such a move.

As well as Switzerland, assisted dying is legal in many countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg and a number of American states.

In May last year, after three days of debate, the Guernsey Parliament voted against introducing assisted dying for terminally ill people. Two months later the Falkland Islands voted overwhelmingly to allow it.

Commenting on Whaley’s decision, Dignity in Dying’s chief executive Sarah Wootton said, “Geoffrey and Ann’s story is a heart-breaking reminder of the cruelty that the current law inflicts on dying people and their families.

“Every eight days someone from the UK travels to Switzerland for an assisted death. Banning the practice in this country does not make it go away; it simply outsources death overseas, at huge financial, practical and emotional cost to the families involved.”

She pointed out that 100 million people across several American and Australian states and throughout Canada have access to assisted dying laws that provide compassion and choice to dying people while protecting the rest of society.

She added, “It is a national disgrace that the UK is lagging so far behind. In upholding the status quo, our elected representatives are turning a blind eye to the suffering of terminally ill people and the overwhelming public support for a change in the law. It’s high time they grasped the nettle and did the right thing in giving dying people a real say over their end.”

But the last word should go to Whaley himself. As he wrote in his letter to the MPs, “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.”