Several news sources report the suicide of Sir Nicholas Wall, the former President of the Family Division, Britain’s most senior family law judge. The Daily Mail has some particularly interesting quotes.
MDMD are not aware of the full circumstances of Sir Nicholas Wall’s death, but the case highlights the following issues:
- Faced with an illness that permanently reduces one’s quality of life below the level one can accept, a decision to end one’s life is a rational and understandable choice for some people.
- If the law were changed to provide legal medically assisted suicide, then people like Sir Nicholas would be likely to seek professional support, in the knowledge that a legal medically assisted suicide would be available when necessary. Evidence from countries where this is available demonstrates that in some cases this can help people delay the point at which they chose to end their lives.
- Dementia, and other conditions which can be intolerable for well over 6 months, highlight the problematic limitations of legalising assisted suicide only for those with a life expectancy of 6 months or less.
- This is particularly poignant for dementia, as by the time a sufferer has a life expectancy of 6 months or less, they are unlikely to have sufficient mental capacity to safely permit a medically assisted suicide.
- Dementia is an increasing concern for many people. It is now the most common cause of death in England and Wales.
- Without a change in the law permitting medically assisted suicide, some people feel forced to take action to end their life themselves. Without controlled legal access to appropriate lethal drugs, alternative methods of suicide are uncertain and prone to failure, possibly leaving the person in a worse state. Some methods are very unpleasant and traumatic for both the person involved and their families.
We need a more compassionate law that allows people like Sir Nicholas Wall to have a good death at a time of their choosing, with appropriate counselling, assistance and company.
UPDATE 7th June 2017
The inquest into Sir Nicholas Wall’s suicide is reported in a piece in the Guardian. He died by hanging in his care home, leaving letters to his wife. The piece does not say whether he was considered to have lost mental capacity, but his actions, letters and planning suggest that his decision was rational. The coroner who examined the note he left said it was clear that he intended to take his own life. Similarly it is unclear whether he had been diagnosed as suffering from a potentially curable depression, as opposed to understandable sadness due to his incurable illness, which for him was intolerable. His nurse, the last person who saw him alive, described how he joked and smiled during her visit. We can reasonably speculate that this is not the behaviour of someone acting out of severe depression.
How much better his death could have been with appropriate legalised assisted dying. He could have had professional counselling – possibly delaying his choice to end his life; he needn’t have died alone; he could have explained to his family, saving them the shock and unpleasantness of a violent suicide …
The tragedy of this case is that Sir Nicholas was not allowed the compassion and medical assistance which would have enabled him to have a good death at the time of his choosing.