Now MLAs must act on helping loved ones to die with dignity
A Co Down woman has been inundated with messages of support after a moving interview with the Belfast Telegraph revealed her family’s heartbreak as their terminally ill mother starved herself to death... today, she pleads for changes to the law on aiding suicide
A woman who helped her mother starve herself to death has called on Northern Ireland’s politicians to relax the laws on assisted suicide.
Jenny Grainger, who shared the poignant story of her terminally ill mum Barbara’s decision to end her own life through starvation in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, wants MLAs to put the emotive issue of euthanasia on their agenda.
The Lisburn life coach has sparked a fresh debate on the matter after bravely highlighting the story of how her mother suffered an agonisingly slow death by refusing food and water as the only legal way to end her own life following a motor neurone disease diagnosis.
Barbara (75), who was a lifelong supporter of euthanasia, wanted the tragic story of her death made public in the hope of helping bring about a change in the law which governs people’s right to choose when and how they die.
Last night Jenny issued a challenge to MLAs, who she said ultimately had the power to help bring about that change.
“I would call on all local MLAs to have the courage to stand up for what they believe and the basic human right of every person to choose how, when and where to die,” she said.
“Regardless of their religious or political background, this is an issue which affects everyone and politicians need to take a stand and help bring about the change in the law, which currently robs people of their right to choose.”
Jenny has been inundated with messages of support since she shared the heartbreaking story of how her family stood by her mum when she chose to end her own life through the voluntary refusal of food and fluids.
“I've had friends and former colleagues and clients contacting me to say they were very moved by the story and it seems to have struck a chord with people who have lost someone close to a terminal illness.
“People have all been very supportive of what I've said and have been really nice about it.
“I've been really encouraged by the messages, and especially from clients who I help in a very personal way to find peace, and it’s good to know that they understand and are on my side.”
Because she did not have the option of a quick and pain-free death through euthanasia, Barbara lingered for 24 days before her heart finally stopped.
Under the 1961 Suicide Act it is an offence punishable by up to 14 years in jail to assist, aid or counsel someone to take their own life.
Jenny believes that the law fails to legislate for individual cases and needs to allow for more compassion.
“It has to be allowed to deal with each case separately, we are talking about human lives and you can’t legislate across the board as every human being’s case is different,” she said.
“I think, as it stands, the law is totally unacceptable and doesn’t take into the account the circumstances of the families or patients who have to be able to express their feelings and have those considered.
“If someone wants to die by having a barbiturate administered then they should have the right to do that. It is not something anyone is going to enter into lightly, but it should be a patient’s right.”
Jenny has been heartened by the support she has received since she told the harrowing story of her mother’s decision to starve herself to death.
“People didn’t know and I wasn’t sure how people would react because it is such a sensitive issue, but thankfully everyone seems to have been very understanding and supportive so far,” she added.
“It’s something my mother felt very strongly about, and while I don’t want to come across as a campaigner, I would have no hesitation in saying I believe local MLAs need to get involved and do something to relax the law.”
‘Mum wanted to end her life because of illness. She believed everyone should have that right’
By Stephanie Bell
A strong, intelligent woman, Barbara Grainger chose to end her life rather than suffer the indignity of being trapped in a useless body following a motor neurone disease diagnosis shortly after her 75th birthday.
A lifelong supporter of euthanasia, she had hoped for a quick and pain-free death by tablet in Switzerland, the only country where assisted suicide is legal.
But the cruel disease which had attacked her body was progressing so quickly that she lost the ability to swallow before her family could finalise arrangements.
The only legal option open to Barbara in the UK was to starve herself to death, an agonisingly long process which lasted 24 harrowing days.
Her distraught family supported her wishes and despite terrible grief, nursed her as she slowly starved to death.
Barbara’s daughter Jenny (44), who runs the Fresh Start life coaching company in Lisburn, now wants to see a change in the law which she
says forced her mum to endure such a long and gruesome death.
Jenny nursed her mum through the 24 long days and nights of her suicide starvation. It was an horrific time for all the family when Barbara begged each of them many times to end her suffering by smothering her.
“Whereas 20 years ago medical staff could have upped the dose of morphine and made her more comfortable, they couldn’t intervene because of the law,” Jenny said.
“It wasn’t until day 20 that we were able to convince them that she needed to be given a strong enough dose to stop her suffering and they agreed.
“For the last three days she was unconscious and died peacefully when her heart stopped on day 24.
“Mum wanted to end her life because she had a terminal illness and she believed that she and everyone else should have that right.
“She always believed in euthanasia and when she had to face it herself she chose the only option open to her, which led to terrible suffering.
“She was an incredible woman during her life and incredible in death, too.”
The legal view
An offence punishable by 14 years in prison
By John Mulgrew
Assisting in an individual’s suicide remains a criminal offence in Northern Ireland with those involved potentially facing a maximum of 14 years in jail.
According to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), a person commits the offence under section 13 of the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1966 if he or she “does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person”.
But since 2009 it also outlines extensive policy guidelines on prosecuting the offence of assisted suicide — which includes mitigating and aggravating factors as to whether a case against someone would be pursued.
Factors which could act against a prosecution include whether the individual had reached a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide”.
It also includes whether the ‘suspect’ was “wholly motivated by compassion” and the actions were of only “minor encouragement or assistance”.
The PPS has said that the policy does not in any way “decriminalise” the offence of encouraging or assisting suicide.
It has said the act “recognises the important requirement, that vulnerable members of society are protected from acts of encouragement or assistance rendered so as to enable the victim to commit suicide”.
The introduction of the policy — much in line with England — was brought about following the outcome of a high-profile right-to-die case in the UK.
The act of committing or attempting to commit suicide is, in itself, not a criminal offence since the 1966 act was introduced.
The political view
Most parties resolute in opposing any change
By John Mulgrew
Politicians across the spectrum have said they would oppose changing the law surrounding assisted suicide in Northern Ireland.
Any decision to change the law to help protect those helping loved ones to die would fall into the hands of Stormont’s Department of Justice.
But, judging by the views of several politicians last night, it seems it’s a move which is unlikely to even reach the Assembly chamber in the foreseeable future.
The SDLP’s Alban Maginness MLA — a barrister and Stormont justice committee member — said the law should not be changed.
“I think once you start to open this up you create a very dangerous situation for a lot of people who are very ill and very old,” he said.
“A key problem is how can a person in such extreme circumstances — mentally and physically — give a true consent to end their lives?”
He said that in his opinion any change in the existing law is significantly “open to abuse”.
Fellow committee member, UUP MLA Tom Elliott, said although it was an “extremely difficult case for anyone to be in” he could “not be behind a change to the law”.
“I would not like to be in that case with a family member, pleading for me to do it. I couldn’t,” he added.
“Therefore I don’t think I would be behind a change on the law for that to happen. I’m always someone behind the idea of battling to the end and seeing it through.”
Committee chair Paul Givan of the DUP said he would naturally follow the party’s view on the issue at Westminster and would not “support or bring forward such legislation in Northern Ireland”.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew said the party would not be supportive of “a change to the laws” in Northern Ireland.
“It’s not something we would be behind. It’s not a clear issue and something which I would have to discuss with the wider party.”