The NS Interview: Debbie Purdy, assisted suicide campaigner

“In a way, I am grateful I have got MS”

How does multiple sclerosis (MS) affect you?
It varies. I burn myself with regular monotony if I try to get things out of the oven. But a few weeks ago I did an indoor skydive. The world has changed shape, but it hasn't got smaller.

Why do you campaign for the right to die?
I should be able to choose to end my life if my suffering becomes unbearable. But to avoid my husband, Omar, being prosecuted for assisting my suicide, I would have had to travel to Dignitas [the assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland] alone, which I could only do while still physically able. I wanted to live as long as I could.

How did it feel to win your appeal to get the prosecution guidelines clarified?
I was preparing to lose and was in the middle of organising to go to Dignitas. Winning was like being given permission to be alive.

What do you think of the new guidelines?
I think they are good enough for me, but I don't think they are good enough for everybody.

How have they changed your situation?
The pressure to make a decision doesn't feel as imminent. Also - this sounds so awful - I love my husband, but I don't feel like I've got to be
as acquiescent as I did.

I was reliant on somebody loving me enough to risk his liberty in order to support my choices. Now, I know I am not dependent on that, and it has made Omar feel independent, too - he feels helping me is more his choice.

What does Omar think of your choice?
He doesn't always agree with me, but he will always support my right to make my own decisions. And that's all you can ask for from another human being.

You now campaign on behalf of others. Why?
It would be disgusting of me to say, "Well, my life's OK now; I'm confident my husband won't get prosecuted, so I'm not going to help anyone else," when others have helped me so much.

What inspires you to keep going?
I have met so many people who say, "I have got cancer and I am struggling and I am glad you are doing this because I couldn't." I'm a loud and opinionated person, so I can do this.

What still needs to happen?
We need to change the laws. The Suicide Act 1961 is older than me. All of our laws should have a sell-by date.

How do you want politicians to help?
Politicians need to take their heads out of their backsides. We have to know that they are prepared to discuss what will improve the quality of our lives and deaths.

What might your life have been like if none of this had happened?
Hedonistic and selfish. I probably wouldn't have married Omar. So, in a way, I am grateful I have got MS. I just wish it wasn't so progressive.

How do you see your future?
We now have the option of not going to Dignitas, but the problem is that we don't have access to the kinds of drugs that can guarantee suicide to be successful. Many people who attempt suicide fail; some people end up in a worse situation than they were in before.

What do you imagine death to be like?
I tend to think that once you're dead, you're dead and that's the end of it.

Do you have any religious faith?
No, the only faith I have is in Karl Marx. I have faith in people, but I don't have any religious faith and I don't feel the need to.

Is there anything you regret?
There are probably quite a few men that I regret. But you can't regret mistakes too much, because they make you who you are, don't they?

Do you vote?
Yes. I voted Lib Dem in the last election and I wanted to chew my hand off after they went into a coalition with the Tories. I would have voted left of Labour, if I could.

Has Labour been a disappointment to you?
Completely. Labour took us to war in Iraq and allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow. They've done things I never thought a socialist party would do.

Did you ever think of having a political career?
I had a great ambition to be the first female prime minister, but Maggie Thatcher kind of ruined that for me.

Are we all doomed?
No, I have enormous faith in the human race. We are doomed only if we allow ourselves to be, or if we refuse to take on issues. But thousands of people got involved in my case - how can we be doomed if the human race is prepared to do that?

Defining Moments

1963 Born in London
1995 Meets her future husband, the violinist Omar Puente. Is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
2001 Becomes wheelchair-bound
2008 Loses first attempt at high court to obtain guidelines on assisted suicide
2009 Wins appeal in House of Lords
2010 Guidelines on assisted suicide are released, clarifying whether Puente will face charges if he helps her die

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial