Twists and Turns in celebrity death advocacy


Looking at three recent deaths of public pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates.

It is surely a great strategy: find someone who has a difficult and maybe terminal illness to front the media calling for a change to the law on euthanasia and/or assisted suicide. The job description has a prerequisite of an emotionally charged set of circumstances guaranteed to attract media attention. Executive high-flyers with the world at their feet; good looking newly-wed whose life plans will be tragically cut short; a well-educated and obviously independent older person who wants to 'rage against the dying of the light' etc. etc. ad nauseam.

The US story of 2014 of Brittany Maynard was one such tragedy that, in terms of the assisted suicide debate, virtually wrote itself. A vivacious, attractive, newly married young woman struck down by a difficult disease, not wanting to face the inevitability of her illness. Predictably, the US pro-suicide organisation formerly the Hemlock Society - now known as Compassion and Choices, packaged up the story into a media frenzy including petitions and wide editorial support for change. Being the focus of the media can be very seductive, as is the thought that one will be remembered for having championed a cause.

Maynard committed suicide in Oregon using the state's assisted suicide legislation. The jury is still out on whether the media circus has actually achieved the desired result, though it did help accelerate yet-to-be finalized debates in a number of states.

In 2014, three other euthanasia & assisted suicide celebrities also passed away. Like Maynard, they did not live to see the laws changed. Unlike Maynard, where they lived and died did not have so-called 'right-to-die' laws. All three, according to reports, however, received quality care at the end.

Peter Short was formerly the Managing Director of Shell Coles Express in Australia. He became a public advocate for euthanasia when his oesophageal cancer returned a little over a year ago. He had always maintained that he had not made a decision about how he wanted to die but argued that people should have the 'choice' for euthanasia. On Christmas Eve he said:

"Have I made up my mind around taking my own life or going the natural causes way? No I have not but can see the choice option offers timing dilemmas, that will be an interesting part of what decision is taken so maybe it is not as linear process as I had thought."

On Boxing Day Mr Short decided to take the Palliative Care option. He died on the 29th of December. The final post in his long-running blog was made that day by his wife, Elizabeth, who says she will continue his quest:

"Hi, my beautiful husband Pete died this morning at 12:20 AM. He died peacefully and I was privileged enough to be sitting on his bed holding his hand at that time. Pete's decision to opt for Palliative care brought him to a place of calmness and serenity and for all of us, safety and security. It allowed Pete to relax, stop fighting and go calmly to his happy place. Thank you all so much for your constant love and support, it has meant the world to us."

Six days earlier, UK assisted suicide activist Debbie Purdy also passed away in a UK Palliative Care facility. Purdy will be remembered as a feisty, good natured and committed campaigner whose 2009 court action was successful in having the Courts direct that the Department of Public Prosecutions publish guidelines for circumstances under which people accompanying someone to a Swiss suicide clinic would not be prosecuted for assisting in suicide. Purdy's intention at that time was to seek legal protection for her husband, Omer Puente, in her own intended Swiss suicide.

At the time of her death, Purdy, who had been living with MS for two decades, had been in the Bradford Marie Curie hospice for about a year and, according to reports, had been intermittently refusing to eat to help bring about her own death.

Mr Puente told the British media:

"We would like to thank the Marie Curie Hospice in Bradford for the care the staff gave her, which allowed her last year to be as peaceful and dignified as she wished."

Predictably, the shrill voices for a change in the UK laws have been tagging their campaign with added emotionalism arguing that passing the UK 'Assisted Dying' Bill would be the best way to honour Purdy. Possibly, but this ignores two realities: Neither Purdy nor Short needed a change in the law to die with dignity; and Purdy proved that no new law is required to exercise the kind of autonomy that is the stock-in-trade argument of the assisted suicide brigade.

This reality echoes a statement by Bronwen Davies following the death of her mother Jean Davies in the UK in October 2014. Jean Davies had been a long-time campaigner and advocate for euthanasia in the UK, had written a book on the subject and was formerly chair of the UK Voluntary Euthanasia Society as it was then known.

Her daughter, Bronwen, told the UK Telegraph that she was 'shocked and very upset' about her mother's death, but 'her mother had proved that those who wanted to die did have the power to take their own lives.'

Like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies refused food and hydration and, like Purdy and Short, she died peacefully with good pain and symptom management.

After her mother's death, Bronwen told BBC Radio 4:

"I am of the view that it's not necessary to change the law because if people realise they have the power to end their lives by stopping eating and drinking and that you are still entitled to medical care for any symptoms you encounter… if people realised they had the power to take matters into their own hands and take responsibility for their lives, and the ends of their lives, there might not need to be a change in the law."

Let me be totally clear at this point: I am not advocating for death by starvation and dehydration as a deliberate choice. It is impossible to know the full details of these cases and improper to make any judgement. There are certainly situations where nutrition and hydration can legitimately be withheld or refused but it may also be the case that a decision not to eat or drink is a wilful action of self-destruction. However, in addition to the glaringly obvious inconsistencies of the pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide movement that the deaths of Purdy, Short and Davies serve to highlight, there are also inconsistencies in respect to what is known as Voluntary Stop Eating and Drinking (VSED).

The UK Columnist at The Guardian, Simon Jenkins, in using Purdy's death to repeat calls for a change in the law, characterised Purdy's death as an 'awful experience of self starvation', clearly ignoring Omer Puente's account of a 'peaceful and dignified' death. You can see the rhetoric unfolding here: 'no-one should have to starve themselves - it's cruel - ergo: we need to change the law'.

VSED has inherently and inextricably some of the same risks as legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide and, while not illegal, it deserves to be shunned for these reasons. Such reasons include possible uncertainty about competency to decide (depression, coercion, thoughts of being a burden etc.); in deaths by VSED outside a medical setting (for example, at home) no-one would know if the patient changed their mind; no-one would know if they were deliberately sedated so that such a change of mind would never be articulated. Like all suicide and euthanasia methods, VSED also holds the risk of complications; such complications possibly rendering the death as less-than-peaceful.

Yet organisations such as the so-called Compassion and Choices (USA) among others market VSED widely as one death method amongst many. Note well that their advocacy for VSED is not restricted to those who are terminally ill. Like helium hoods, nitrogen hoods, illicit purchases of Nembutal etc. etc., VSED is not about people who are terminally ill at all. (Note: Jean Davies, whilst ill was not dying)

So while they publicly push for law change for terminally ill people only, their agenda is far broader than that. This fact alone should serve as a warning to legislators. This is a movement by and for an elite. If this were not so, then surely their first priority would be champion access to the kind of support that Purdy, Short and Davies received at the end of their lives for everyone. But, of course, if that were the case, their cause would fizzle like a damp firecracker.

Like many others, my sympathies are with the families of Debbie Purdy and Peter Short at this time. They both deserve to be remembered as feisty people who fought with integrity and honourably for what they believed in. Rhetoric aside, I am glad that they and their families experienced the care and support that they deserved.

Further reading:

The failures of the cult of 'celebrity endorsement'
The normalization of suicide - the Brittany Maynard story
Assisted suicide cannot promise you a peaceful or painless death
Brittany Maynard - a sad story of vultures and manipulation
Debbie Purdy Dies: Case Echoed I Accuse!
Hard Cases, Great Cases: bad law
Dying of Thirst is Excruciating Agony
Patients Rights Council critique of VSED