Right-to-die debate: Should the law allow assisted suicide?

Yahoo! News interviewed two campaigners who sit on each side of the debate and believe passionately in their cause

The issue of assisted dying is in the spotlight this week as right-to-die campaigners Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb take their appeals to the High Court. Lord Falconer is also launching his parliamentary bid to legalise assisted dying. The issue draws impassioned arguments from those who are for and those who are against a change in the law to make assisted dying legal.

Yahoo! News interviewed two campaigners who sit on each side of the debate and believe passionately in their cause.  Heather Pratten's son died from the crippling Huntington’s Disease and believes a change in the law is needed. Mik Scarlet has been disabled all his life and he believes that, above all else, life is precious.

Pro assisted dying - Heather’s story

Heather Pratten has no regrets about her role in her son's death despite initially being put on bail for murder and eventually being charged with aiding and abetting a suicide. She received a 12-month conditional discharge.

The 75-year-old had watched her son suffer from Huntington’s Disease – an inherited brain disorder. The disease damages some of the nerve cells in the brain causing deterioration, a gradual loss of function and ultimately death.

Heather said: "Nigel was around 16 when we realised what it was. His initial reaction was ‘if it happens to me I’ll shoot myself' after he’d seen his father and aunt suffer from the disease. He was a very independent person and had the attitude that no one was going to look after him."

[What is Huntington's Disease?]

Nigel’s symptoms got worse when he was in his 30s. He used to draw cartoons for all birthday and Christmas cards and it was when Heather received a shop-bought card that she realised he couldn’t draw anymore and knew she had to talk to her son about the disease.

Heather said: "Once it was out in the open, we would go out for days together and laugh and joke, but at the end of every day it came back to how he was going to die. The fact that he couldn’t draw, I couldn’t tell you how awful that was for him."

Nigel’s personality was also affected. He began to shut himself away from friends and became impatient. He had problems walking, swallowing and even talking.

He once tried to take his own life by starving himself to death and was furious when he was taken to hospital and his condition was stabilised. He told his mum that he’d thought seriously about jumping under a train and had been to the station twice but could only think of the train driver.

Heather said: "He kept discussing ways to die. I didn’t have a problem with it. I’d seen the disease and wouldn’t want to live with it."

Nigel finally took his own life on his 42nd birthday. He was spending a period of time in hospital and Heather had taken him out for the day. Back at his flat, she made him open his cards and sang ‘Happy Birthday’. Nigel then told his mum a friend had got him a present. He went into his room and came back with a syringe full of heroin. After unsuccessfully trying to inject himself due to the symptoms of his disease, he swallowed the drug.

Heather said: "We lay down and talked about life and what he’d done. He told me he loved me and we went to sleep together. When I woke up I knew he’d nearly gone. I couldn’t stand it. I was frightened. We were late back to hospital. I thought this has got to end. I picked up a pillow and held it over his face. He was so close to death it didn’t make a difference."

Heather said she completely understands why Nigel made the choice he did.

She said: "I wouldn’t have left him on his own. I didn’t really have a choice. I know he got what he wanted. He was happy with it."

While Heather’s son Nigel wanted to die, another of her sons Philip, who also had Huntington’s Disease, chose to live with the terminal illness. He went into a care home and lived life as best he could until he died at the age of 48. Towards the end of his days he had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk or talk, had difficulty swallowing so was on a liquidised diet and had no control over his bladder and bowel movements.

After her own experiences caring for two terminally ill children, Heather passionately believes that assisted dying should be legalised. She’s a strong supporter of Dignity in Dying which campaigns for a change in the law. She said assisted dying wasn’t about putting pressure on disabled people, it was about giving them options. Heather said: "They shouldn’t have to die alone, shouldn’t have to go abroad, shouldn’t have to ask a relative. It is about a choice for people."
Against assisted dying – Mik’s story

Mik Scarlet was born with a rare form of cancer which has led to him being disabled all his life.

He was initially given days to live as a six-week-old baby but was saved by surgery, radiotherapy and a new cancer trial drug. He was left with a paralysed right leg on which he had to wear a calliper. At the age of 15 his spine collapsed as a result of the treatment he had in childhood and Mik never walked again.

He said: "When I came out of hospital everything I had been looking forward to fell away. I went back to being a small baby as my mum had to wash and dress me. I was told I’d never have children. I became massively depressed and started to plan how I would kill myself. I thought about the quickest, easiest and most direct route. It then occurred to me that my mum would find me dead and I didn’t want to do that to her."

Six months later life started to pick up for Mik. He was back at college, had a girlfriend and lots of friends.

Ten years later Mik had his own TV show, had won an Emmy award, was touring Europe with a band which was supporting his teenage hero Gary Numan and was the first disabled actor to appear in a UK soap (Brookside).

He said: "If you’d said that my life would be like that 10 years before, I’d never have believed you. If you’d put death on the table 10 years before, I would have said yes. I might have gone and never been me. Ten years after that moment my life was not only good for a disabled person but bloody amazing for anyone. That’s what scares the hell out of me. You don’t know what tomorrow brings when you’re at your darkest."

Mik vehemently believes the law should stay as it. He feels that making assisted dying legal would have huge implications for all disabled people.

He said: "This is a turning point in the way our society sees illness and disability. If we do go down the road of assisted suicide we may end up living in a society where people like myself are no longer seen as viable."

He feels a change in the law would mean heading down a slippery slope where doctors see the termination of someone’s life as normal medical procedure.

Mik acknowledges that fact that some people suffer from terminal conditions which means their symptoms get worse over time, but his view is that rather than helping them to die, we should be focusing on making the world more inclusive.

He said: "I know for some of those people it will never end but for those few people, we shouldn’t endanger most. If some people can’t cope it’s not a good enough reason to help them to die. We as disabled do not have the right to ask someone to kill us. What’s the difference between a disabled person and every other minority person? The emphasis should be on trying to make the world better for everyone."

Mik says he’s saddened and terrified by the consequences of a change in the law.

He said: "However much we can point to people in terrible situations it can’t be used to change the law as it will impact on some of us who do not want to be put down. I have been there. I understand what it’s like. So many years later, everything you want and more can happen. Life is precious."

A survey on behalf of Benenden Health found that 77 per cent of people believed assisted dying should be made legal in the UK, 43% of people would consider assisting a loved one to die, 33% of people would do whatever they could to end their own life if they believed their circumstances warranted it, even if it was illegal, and 30% of people would consider asking a loved one to assist them to end their life despite the current law stating assisted dying in any form is illegal.