On the death of Debbie Purdy

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well - people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide law not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well – people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

Everyone at the British Humanist Association (BHA) was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Debbie Purdy just before Christmas, after taking the decision to starve herself. Debbie was an inspirational campaigner for reforming the law on assisted dying, and hers was an enormously dignified voice in public debate over many years. It was her brave campaigning that led to the publication of new legal guidance on the prosecution of family members who help loved ones to end their lives.

This was a step forward, but only a very small one because the new guidelines did not change the law. In spite of all Debbie’s courageous efforts and campaigning until the very end, assisted dying remains against the law in the UK. This means that thousands of terminally ill and permanently and incurably suffering people across the country are unable to enjoy their lives as much as they can, because they cannot rely on receiving the assistance they may need to end their lives in circumstances of their choosing, in dignity and free from pain.

Much recent media attention has focused on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, currently before the House of Lords. If passed, the Bill would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication from their doctor. This represents another step forward, preventing unnecessary, prolonged suffering by providing those who are terminally ill with choice and control over how and when they end their lives.

But though this is a step in the right direction, it does not go anywhere near far enough. As Debbie Purdy pointed out in her final article before her death, the Bill only extends to terminally ill people judged by a doctor to be within six months of the end of their life. That excludes people who are permanently and incurably suffering – people like Debbie as well as the late Tony Nicklinson and Jean Davies, whose illnesses were not terminal but who had reached a point where they simply could not tolerate continuing to suffer any longer.

As Debbie made clear, the Bill must be passed – but it is just not enough. It does not provide a solution for people like her who seek permission to get support to end their lives in dignity, should living become truly unbearable. The BHA has long wished to see an assisted dying law which is responsive to the needs of people like Debbie who are permanently and incurably suffering, as well as those who are suffering from a terminal illness – and the majority of the public agrees.

Now is the time to act, by reforming the law to legalise assisted dying both for people suffering from a terminal illness and for those who are permanently and incurably suffering. If the law is not changed, people will continue to die after suffering for prolonged periods, in pain and robbed of their dignity. We owe it to courageous people like Debbie Purdy to make sure that this is no longer the case.

Humanist Heroes: Roy and Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street

Screen and stage writer Rob Fraser writes about his humanist heroes: Corrie‘s Roy and Hayley. 

Roy and Hayley

Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and David Neilson (Roy Cropper) are Rob Fraser’s humanist heroes. Photo: ITV.

True To Character.

First, a confession: I am a deeply religious person. I began practising my faith at the age of six which I know many would consider too young, and it’s true that there was an element of parental indoctrination – this was a belief system I shared with my mother. We would attend a ceremony together two evenings a week, fifty two weeks a year. Later, there would be more opportunities to celebrate, almost on a daily basis, but it was the twice weekly observance which formed the bedrock of my faith and remains a comforting ritual some thirty seven years since the (half) hour I first believed. Yes, for the best part of four decades I have worshipped Coronation Street.

I would happily crawl along the cobbles on my knees to the Rovers Return, like a Mexico City pilgrim approaching the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I would treat a splinter from Stan Ogden’s window cleaning ladder with the awe due a sliver of the one true cross. Alma, Curly, Hilda, Raquel, Bet –  I revered these characters in my childhood and youth as I would prophets, archangels and saints, but in adulthood two unlikely figures have ascended to truly iconic status, Roy and Hayley Cropper. The pair had inauspicious beginnings – he basically an ineffectual stalker of Deidre, she introduced as a pre-op transgender girlfriend in what was to have been a short term and potentially sensationalist storyline – in the sixteen years which followed they became the heart and soul of a hugely popular, mainstream, prime time television soap. Not only that but they served as the moral core of the show – compassionate, non-judgemental, and engaging with transformative effect in the lives of two troubled young women (Fitz and Becky) who became Weatherfield favourites. Their values were those often claimed as Christian by, well, Christians.

When Julie Hesmondhalgh decided to leave the series, a major exit strategy was required. But rather than some tabloid titillating ‘who killed character X?’ plot the writing and production team opted for a rather more mundane tragedy: Hayley would be diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and die. This wholly relatable storyline reflected the characters’ evolution on the show – they were an inarguably unusual couple to whom the audience felt empathy and affinity – but there was an unusual aspect in how they would handle their ordeal: Roy and Hayley would face death, grief and loss from a Humanist perspective. Capital H. Explicitly, defiantly Humanist.

Now, Roy’s atheism had been long established and tied in to his love of knowledge and his fascination with science (in fact he even lectures the Street’s most devout denizen, Emily Bishop, on the futility of ‘talking into thin air’), but Hayley had a slightly more conflicted history. She had for example, gone to great lengths to have her marriage blessed by a Church of England vicar. Even at the time this has felt more born of a desire for acceptance and acknowledgement rather than any deeply held religious belief but still her embracing of Humanism is significant. Here was a person whose entire life had been about choice and self-determination so it was perfectly logical that she should reach a/her Humanist conclusion. And so it was that in the weeks leading up to her death she met with a Humanist minister and planned her funeral: it’s become a cliché to say these services are a celebration of life but in Hayley’s case it’s the only phrase possible, there would be Queen songs and bright colours and a cardboard coffin emblazoned with flowers, carried by ‘the girls from the factory.’ All lovely stuff but the truly heroic – and I would argue truly Humanist – moments came not in preparing a send off but in dealing with death itself, when Hayley decided to end her own life.

The episode in which Hayley took an overdose and slipped calmly away in her own home, in her own bed was the highest rated of 2014 and nearly ten million viewers watched through tears as Roy lay down next to her for the last time. Coronation Street is not an avowedly political programme but it does consciously and conscientiously strive to promote acceptance and inclusion. It has gay, straight, lesbian, disabled, black, and Asian characters but none are defined by their race or sexuality – and the audience react to them based on their actions not their appearance. For no one was this more true than Roy and Hayley – initially described by onscreen neighbours as a ‘nutter’ and a ‘freak’ who became the most beloved and trusted people on TV. How fantastic then that when two caring, curious, and charitable individuals found themselves in extremis the only step they could naturally take was towards Humanism. It’s hard to say with any great certainty whether or not will prove to be one of those watershed moments when popular culture reflects changes in wider society, but to hell with certainty, I have ‘faith’.

Rob Fraser has been a television writer for fifteen years, with credits ranging from Monarch of the Glen to Taggart via Holby City, and has recently completed his second stage play, Faith School.

The Bridge

Ben Greenhalgh shares a short narrative based on the writings of David Hume.

Bridge at dusk

The road and the high beams of the bridge were hidden, blurring seamlessly into a thick mist surrounding it. Photo: Dirk-Jan Kraan.

The Bridge

I have never enjoyed crossing it at night. To describe it crudely, as my limited vocabulary allows, it is as if a section of the Golden Gate Bridge were hacked out and jammed between the high walls of a gorge. Nothing lives below it but air and height, and to look over the edge on a clear day tingles every lower inch.

On that day, as daylight struggled against dusk, all that could be seen as I moved across it were the small lights against the quiet, dry blooded metal. The road and the high beams of the bridge were hidden, blurring seamlessly into a thick mist surrounding it.

As always, I quickened my pace until I happened upon a silhouette. He had the stillness of a gargoyle, out of place on the metallic structure, sitting watching over the gorge. His gaze, although difficult to tell, was suggested in the position of his head, raised into the tie-dyed sky of the falling sun.

“Sir? Are you okay?” I called out

The small thin lights above him outlined only his form, his torso strong, confident and, above all, purposeful.  For, as he would tell me later, no man ever threw away his life while it was worth keeping.

“My life will end tonight.” He said turning to me. “I’m sorry you have to be here, I truly am, but is it wrong that I am also glad?”

My heart began to thrash against my ribs, my feet began to sweat and nothing but a cracked clichéd response to offer in return.

“Don’t be afraid, I’ll get help. I’ll call the police.”

Knowing now, although I couldn’t see him at the time, he smiled and I equally knew it was only me on that bridge that night who felt any hint of fear.

His voice lilted softly as if weakened instantly by the mist, the words only just able to reach my ears.

“The police? Of course, for what is about to happen here is a criminal act and must entail their invite.”

“Yes, they will talk to you. Just wait there.” My voice was raised more than I would have liked but I fumbled for my phone in my pocket.

“If it is a crime, I ask against whom?”, he continued. “I have no one who will benefit financially from my death so it is not within societie’s laws a crime. If I am to die here tonight I will no longer contribute to, or take from society any longer. So the crime must only be against God or myself”.

My phone couldn’t find a bar of signal in the mist. I plunged it back into my pocket as my mind hurried to find conversation.

Having shed the blanket of organised religion a long time ago, I had been given the role of a preacher to a man in his final hours. In that moment I was sure that to not give an answer, to not talk or help this man would forever haunt me.

“God doesn’t want you to die, I am certain”.

“Thank you. I am sure I will not shun him by ending this life. Unless perhaps he thinks I am special?”

“Yes we are all special”.

“Because we are human?” He paused for a moment in a lengthy sigh.  “How self-serving of us. How much we lord over ourselves, almost divine yes? Yet, my life, like yours, is as fragile as any other being on this planet. I can be taken by a single hair, fly or insect. If I am so special, existing above all other animals, is it not an absurdity to suppose that human prudence may not dispose of what depends on such insignificant causes?”

“You must be sick, sir, to want this. It isn’t natural to want such a thing”.

“Natural?” His chuckle lingered, held as an echo by the gorge. “You believe suicide is against nature?”

I was taken by surprise in a moment of honesty.


“Yet we build houses, fly and sail the ocean. Even this bridge we find ourselves on encroaches upon nature. In all these ventures we have used our minds and bodies to produce innovation in the course of nature. If ending my life early is against nature surely all these things are equally innocent or criminal. An attempt to extend my life in a hospital bed many years from now would surely break the same rules?” I stepped forward, bringing the man into focus as he went on. “Is it wrong to use my mind, the same mind which innovated into nature? The same mind that God, or indeed nature has provided for me to take what is also given to me? To the universe I am matter, nothing more”.

“I am sure you are a good man, and have so much to live for. Think of those you are leaving behind”. At the time I hoped the guilt of leaving his family would sway his decision, to this day I am unsure as to whether he had any at all.

He turned his head and looked at me, gazing into me for what seemed like an age before he spoke.

“My friend, no man ever threw away his life while it was worth keeping. If I were to fall now of my own accord I would only cease to do good, if as you say, I am a good man. If I am a man full of vice then I do the world a service, no?”

As I took steps towards him I wondered why he didn’t threaten to jump. It wasn’t until I was right beside him that I remarked upon his head angled awkwardly as he politely kept my gaze. His body leant impotently against one of the metal struts.

“The truth is my friend, I need your help. Many people have helped me get here, one to this exact place. Each has said almost the same as you in an attempt to stop me. All I have answered to the best of my ability my reasons for doing so. All have played their part in helping me to this point, yet I am afraid I must ask of you to help me to the final end. Help me end what is truly my own. I entrust that act to you as I am unable to myself”.

I took a step back, not to move and run for help, but so that he was no longer in pain keeping my eye.

“Are you ill?”

“All you need know is that life has become a lengthy burden and I want to rid myself of its existence.   Although liberty has always been in my heart and mind, I have never been able to grasp it until this day, to take control of my own fate. I wish only to use my will prudently for my own self”.

His legs were thin, gaunt and useless yet his face, although pale, gazed into everything with constant thought.

“My only fear is for you. To help me would be a crime. Yet, if I were able myself, we may never have met as I would have been rid of life long ago”. His head sunk for the first time to the girder below. “Those for whom life is bearable will never understand. Your help they will see as an act of murder, to take a life I valued. Yet in reality, if I am sure to voice my choice based on my own sentiment, your act for me is nothing but a most loving release. For I do not value my life, so how can it be murder to take it from me?”

I stood for a moment before climbing over to his side. We spoke for some time, but never another word about his decision. And, as the sun finally surrendered to night, he turned to nod to me.  I slowly unbalanced him, took him by the hands and carefully let go as his weight took him from the rusted frame and into the mist below.

Ben Greenhalgh is a philosopher and writer. He works full time as a tutor for vulnerable young people who cannot be educated within mainstream education.

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision?

by Lesley Close

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision, by Lesley Close, published 12 February 2014.

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision, by Lesley Close, published 12 February 2014.

Eleven years ago this month I was helping my brother, John Close, to prepare for his death. He was 55 and coming to the end of his life because he had motor neurone disease, diagnosed two years earlier.

John had seen the story of Reg Crew, the first Briton whose journey to Dignitas was publicised. He told me, by typing with one finger at a time on his computer, ‘That’s how I’d like to go when my time comes.’

My response was to confirm that his life was his to deal with as he saw fit. I told him that I would do everything I could to help him achieve his goal of a peaceful and dignified death at the time of his choosing.

That’s how I came to arrive in a tiny flat in central Zurich at three o’clock in the afternoon on Monday 26th May 2003. John was only the seventh British person to have Dignitas’ help to die, so we had no idea what to expect from the experience as the last day of John’s life unfolded.

It was hard to accept that John was dying of MND, but it was comforting that he could be in control at the end of his life. With Dignitas’ help, my dear brother obtained the peaceful and dignified death he sought, but it did not happen at the time of his choosing. As well as fitting in with Dignitas’ plans, John had to travel to Switzerland while he still had sufficient bodily strength to undertake the journey. There was no question about his mental strength – like everyone who has made that journey to have help to die, John was a strong determined individual.

That’s an important characteristic – nobody is being compelled to go to Switzerland against their will. People who are suffering intolerably as their lives come to an end because of terminal illnesses are looking for – and finding – the information they need to contact Dignitas and are making their own plans to undertake that final journey.

The statistics from Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1997, confirm that the option of an assisted death appeals to individuals for whom being in control is very important, predominantly college-educated people.

I thought I knew a great deal about the subject of assisted dying when, a year ago, I started writing the personal stories which form half of the book published by Peter Owen on 12th February, Assisted dying – who makes the final decision? but I learned a huge amount by editing the chapters which appear between my own. I was previously ready to debate the subject with anyone but now I feel armed to refute almost every objection which is raised to changing the law.

I have learned the importance of challenging people who say things like ‘In the Netherlands people no longer trust their doctors’ and similar things intended to make an audience doubt the wisdom of changing the law here. I now ask for statistics to back up those assertions. There aren’t any!

Unless and until someone shows me a different way to solve the UK’s problem of intolerable suffering at the end of life, I will campaign to change the law to something like the Oregon ‘model’. Assisted dying works there and Lord Falconer’s Bill contains even more safeguards than Oregon’s legislation. Doctors in that state are not regarded as murdering monsters and the rest of the medical and social care system works perfectly well. And Oregon has not been consumed by hellfire… which brings me on to my final point.

I have never yet heard an argument against assisted dying that I have not been able to refute, other than those which are based purely on the dictates of a person’s religious belief. Everyone who, like me, has no such belief – as well as those people with faith who can reconcile their faith with assisted dying – should assert the need for individual choice in decisions about their death. I do not want to dictate how anyone should see out the end of their life and I believe we should all be shown the same respect.

Lesley Close is the author of Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision?, released 12 February 2014. She works as a design company administrator, and is the sister of the late John Close.