Time to change Northern Ireland law on assisted dying, pleads woman whose watched suffer in agony to end
A Co Down woman has spoken out about watching her mother die in severe pain as a new report slams current laws prohibiting assisted dying in the UK as flawed.
Caroline Villar (39) said that when her mum Margaret received a terminal diagnosis of cancer she considered an assisted death in Switzerland, but feared the legal implications for her family if they helped.
The Bangor woman ended up suffering a painful passing at home.
Caroline explained: "My mother had permanent radiation damage so experienced constant stinging pain in the last month of her life. The drugs that she was on couldn't reduce this pain.
"Mum was in agony and didn't want to be there at that point in time. I think that most people believe that modern medicine will stop you suffering, but my mum was crying out for painkillers at the end, and they couldn't increase the dose because they said if they gave her any more it would push her over into death.
"We were all happy for that to happen, to finally end her suffering, but they couldn't do it."
New research released today finds that current laws are failing terminally ill people and their loved ones.
The report, The True Cost: How The UK Outsources Death To Dignitas, is based on research commissioned by Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for a change in the law to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults the option of an assisted death.
Due to a lack of meaningful choice at the end of life at home, many dying people feel forced to investigate having an assisted death overseas.
However, as the report uncovers, the financial, logistical, physical and emotional costs mean that this option is out of reach for many terminally ill people.
Dying UK people who are unable to obtain an assisted death abroad can go on to endure unbearable suffering and painful deaths.
Independent researchers conducted in-depth interviews with three groups of people: those with a terminal illness who are considering an assisted death in Switzerland; those who have helped a loved one to have an assisted death in Switzerland; and those whose loved one considered an assisted death in Switzerland, but died in the UK.
Dignity in Dying also carried out research on the financial costs involved in arranging an assisted death in Switzerland and analysed the enquiries the organisation has received from people seeking information on how to control their deaths.
The report finds that one of the greatest obstacles to arranging an assisted death overseas is the cost, which Dignity in Dying estimates at £10,000 on average, including fees from the organisations providing the service, travel and accommodation.
A lack of direct flights from Northern Ireland to Zurich, where Dignitas is based, or Basel, where a similar facility called Eternal Spirit is based, can further increase costs for terminally ill people from here.
The report also reveals logistical challenges that make obtaining an assisted death abroad impossible for many.
The process is complex and time-consuming, meaning many people require help from family and friends to make arrangements and travel there, yet any assistance provided to someone seeking an assisted death is against the law.
Many terminally ill people may therefore be stranded without the necessary legal or personal support to obtain an assisted death abroad.
Another obstacle is the requirement to be physically able to travel to Switzerland.
This often has the perverse effect of forcing terminally ill people to die earlier than they would have otherwise wanted to, or being unable to travel at all.
The report finds that dying people seeking an assisted death abroad also face a postcode lottery when it comes to co-operation from healthcare professionals.
Medical bodies are failing to provide clear guidance on how to effectively respond to requests for help in obtaining an assisted death overseas.
Reactions from healthcare professionals vary widely from point-blank refusal to discuss their patients' plans for an assisted death abroad, to implicit co-operation in making arrangements.
The report further highlights that the current law does not protect vulnerable people. Figures from Dignitas show that every eight days a Briton is travelling there for an assisted death.
Yet there are currently no legal mechanisms to trigger an advance investigation if someone is considering doing so and only a minority of cases are investigated after the fact, meaning malicious or coercive behaviour could go undetected.
The criminalisation of assisted dying in the UK also means that the process of seeking one overseas often happens behind closed doors, sometimes leading people to investigate more dangerous and traumatic methods to end their own lives at home.
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: "This report exposes the unacceptable reality that is faced by so many dying people in this country.
"By denying terminally ill people the option of an assisted death at home, we are not solving the problem, just outsourcing it to Switzerland, and dying people and their families are the ones paying the price.
"We urge our Parliamentarians to examine the evidence before them and act to provide terminally ill Britons with the option of an assisted death in their final months in the country they call home.
"Change is the solution to our broken law - not Switzerland."