“I was really upset,” said Debbie Purdy after judges in the High Court ruled against her. “Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I was absolutely convinced we were going to win.”
Purdy has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and plans to go to Switzerland and have a doctor help her die when the pain gets to be unbearable.
She would like her husband to accompany her but is worried that he could face up to 14 years in jail under a law dating from 1961.
Ultimately, if she does not win her case she will go earlier than planned, when she still has the faculties to administer the drugs to herself and won’t need to directly involved anyone else.
“We were only asking for clarity, not asking for anything grandiose.”
Now she’s been granted leave to take her case to the Court of Appeal.
“It’s been surprising how much interest there has been – journalists, neighbours, people on the train – who have come up to me and said, ‘my aunt, my uncle, was in the same position’. Even on the train home from London, I met a lady with breast cancer. She said to me, ‘I’m really glad you’re brave enough to do this. I’m not.’”
“This has refocused my belief in humanity – we don’t think only of ourselves. People are more than that – they have compassion and the ability to see others point of view.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
Ultimately there needs to be a rethink at Parliamentary level but Purdy doubts politicians have the courage to confront this particular issue preferring to leave the battles to the courts.
“The law hasn’t been looked at since 1961 – in that time medical, social and cultural advances have been huge,” she points out.
“I think it’s cowardice on the part of politicians: they are scared they might lose votes.”
She doesn’t think that politicians should influence how she chooses to die. “People should be trusted more to make decisions.”
Not all of her friends agree with the decision that she will eventually make to kill herself when the pain becomes unbearable. “A friend who is very religious and doesn’t think it’s the right decision said to me after the court case, ‘I’m really disappointed for you, because it’s your choice.’”
“Even my husband’s not 100 per cent certain what he would do if he were in this position. It’s a decision he would do everything to stop me making.”
He does however realise the decision isn’t his. As Purdy says: “He’s not the one who takes pain killers before he gets out of bed in the morning or is lying on the floor, calling to be helped to get up.”
Over 100 British people have travelled to Zurich to die and everybody except one was accompanied by friends or relatives explained Purdy. “Because of the law, it forced terrible decisions. Though no one’s been prosecuted yet, one who accompanied someone to Switzerland was investigated for nine months. Somebody will get prosecuted unless we clarify.”
“Because my husband is black and he’s foreign, if they’re going to prosecute someone, it’s going to be him, not some 70-year-old English woman. It’s frightening to contemplate – I love him.”
Those who accompany those to die aren’t the only ones who face possible persecution. Currently under British law it is illegal for doctors to offer counselling regarding assisted suicide. Purdy wonders, “How can we protect doctors? A doctor’s first instinct is compassion.”
Purdy feels that having the ability to have an assisted suicide increases the quality of care. “Hospice care is great but it isn’t right for everybody.”
In the US state of Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal for 10 years, more than 300 people have used it to die. Purdy feels that the quality of care has improved there as “the number of patients dying from too many pain medications (which are often prescribed to those in chronic pain) has gone down.”
Purdy attended a discussion on the topic following the verdict of her case. “Some people suggested that this issue is statistically insignificant,” she said. “They [people who went to die in Switzerland] were vibrant, real people who didn’t want their last months to be painful or degrading.
“Some think it’s a theoretical, ethical discussion. But this is my life.”
Purdy disagrees with those who don’t want to legalise mercy killings because they feel the law protects vulnerable people. Though she is in a wheelchair and has lost the muscular ability to open child proof tops, she doesn’t feel that her disability has made her vulnerable. “I fall over on the floor a lot – it’s annoying not undignified. That I’m referred to as a victim or vulnerable is undignified.”
“This sounds selfish but this is my life – there’s not much I can do about the situation in Democratic Republic of Congo. I need to do what I can to make my life longer – and maybe contribute.”
Purdy says that changing the law would allow people like her who are in chronic pain to live worry-free knowing that they have a way out. “We need a safety net so we can walk on a high wire. If the pain becomes too much and if we are serious, not coerced, then we can ask for help to end our lives.”