PUBLISHED: 11:39 14 January 2020 | UPDATED: 11:39 14 January 2020
A woman who feared she would face criminal charges after her terminally ill mother took her life has backed a campaign fighting to change the law on assisted dying.
Dignity in Dying has today launched its Compassion is not a Crime drive, in a bid to highlight the suffering of terminally ill people who would like more control over their deaths, and that of their loved ones, who risk imprisonment if they help them end their lives.
It has been backed by Zoë Marley, whose mother Judith attempted to take her life at her Cromer home in summer 2018, having been previously diagnosed with terminal skin cancer. She had long said she wanted to end her life before the disease could worsen.
Currently, assisted dying is illegal and anyone found guilty of assisting a suicide could face up to 14 years in prison.
“She was very aware that if she took her life she couldn’t involve family – she would have to do it alone,” Mrs Marley said. “Her family would be in danger of being seen to be assisting the suicide. Fourteen years in prison is a really scary thought for wanting to hold your mother’s hand at the end of her life.”
During her mother’s suicide attempt, Mrs Marley called an ambulance in the hopes paramedics would move her inside, from her garden, to die. Despite Mrs Marley having legal power of attorney (LPA) – which gave her power over her mother’s health, care and resuscitation – ambulance crews were unsure whether Judith should be taken to hospital. Eventually, the police were called.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I had the emergency services there and three or four police officers, it was getting very late and I had realised by this point that things were very badly run with this law. A lot of people were talking about it being a grey area, and no-one knew what to do.”
After the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital confirmed the LPA meant they would not be able to treat Judith against her wishes, she was brought inside.
While she survived, one month later Judith died by suicide, leading to an investigation.
“I spoke to an officer for the best part of four hours in my house, going over every aspect of the last year of my mother’s life,” she said. “I had to relive everything. That is not what families need when their mother, who has been ill with cancer for eight months, has just died. I needed to be there for my daughter, for my husband.”
According to Freedom of Information request data, there were 11 crimes recorded under the Suicide Act – for aiding and abetting a suicide – recorded between April 2012 and July 2019 in Norfolk and Suffolk.
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Of those, five people were interviewed under caution, but no arrests were made.
Mrs Marley, 52, now hopes to speak out to raise awareness and encourage conversation around assisted dying, an issue she has once again been confronted with.
“If that’s the way the law is operating, then the law needs to change,” she said. “It shouldn’t be allowed to happen. My husband has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he is now facing a cancer death too. I have to make people aware of how the law is functioning.
“They should be given the option of being able to say ‘I want my friends and family around me, I want a nice, peaceful death’, without any fear that police will come round and their loved ones will have to face an interrogation.
“The most vulnerable people in society are the people who are in the process of dying. Those people have no choices.”
She said her husband had questioned why he might have to travel abroad to choose to end his life, adding that pushing for new laws on assisted dying was not an attack on palliative care provision.
“[My husband] always supported my mother’s choices. But he likes the idea of having good palliative care and choices at the end of his life – it isn’t about replacing palliative care, it should be part of it. It’s about embellishing it, and growing it.”
Dignity in Dying campaigns to allow mentally competent dying people, with six months or less to live, the option to control their death.
Its new campaign calls on the Ministry of Justice to call for evidence on the functioning and impact of the current laws.
The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.