I wish these guidelines had been in place when my brother John and I were planning his journey to Dignitas in 2003. The long-awaited guidance designed to help people know if they will face prosecution for helping someone kill themselves, which outlined by the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, would have been tremendously helpful to John and to me. It would have been of enormous help to know that his "clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide" – in the words of the interim policy – which he had communicated to me "unequivocally" as he "asked personally" for my help would have been a factor weighing against any possibility of my being prosecuted for helping him to die.
These guidelines may not offer immunity from prosecution, but they offer a welcome clarity in their choice of words. Yes, John was "terminally ill"; he had motor neurone disease – a "degenerative condition". In helping him arrange his trip to Zurich to die, my actions were "wholly motivated by compassion". How else would anyone react when their 54-year-old brother, once a fit and strong man but no longer able to speak, stand, swallow, or turn over in bed, writes in black and white: "That's how I'd like to go when my time comes." John's words were his reaction to the story of Reg Crew, the first Briton to publicly travel to the Dignitas in Switzerland.
John turned to me as a "relative", looking for help having "considered other options and treatment", all of which had failed to alleviate his suffering. He was almost completely helpless and his problem was not pain but a loss of dignity, and there is no effective palliative care for that.
Before John's journey, my primary concern was not any risk I was taking in helping him. My major concern was the risk that someone might find a way to stop him travelling to his assisted death. We did not seek any publicity in advance but all John's caring team knew what he was about to do: my fear was that Chinese whispers might mean the door that was opening for John, thanks to the example of Reg Crew, might be closed in his face just as he saw the comforting light emerging through it.
After John's death, I half-expected to be questioned on my return to Britain: would there be a police officer waiting at the airport as I wheeled John's empty wheelchair through the terminal? Yes, I "helped [the] police with [their] inquiries", insofar as I wrote to ask whether I was going to be prosecuted – and the answer was that "it was not in the public interest" to prosecute at that time.
How very reassuring it would have been to have a list like that published by the DPP. To read the factors listed in the document is to realise that the legal system – which too often comes across as being inaccessible to people like me – is able to understand that there is a big difference between compassion and malice.
Looking back, I ask myself if there was more I could have done to dissuade John, but I have come to the firm conclusion that nobody could have dissuaded him. His body may have been failing but his mind was still clear, and he knew what he wanted – to die while he still had some input into his life.
He would have been delighted to see today's guidelines, but he wanted me to go further – to campaign to change the law. Yesterday was a big step forward; now for the next goal.
Close, Lesley. (Wednesday 23rd September, 2009). Thank you, Keir Starmer. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/sep/23/assisted-suicide-guidelines-dignitas