Don't jail my husband if he helps me to die, pleads MS sufferer

Debbie Purdy talks to Robert Verkaik about her court challenge to ensure her partner will not be prosecuted for a last loving act

A terminally ill woman who fears that her husband will be jailed for helping her die painlessly will go to the High Court next month in a landmark challenge to the law on assisted suicide.

Debbie Purdy, 45, says she wants to end her life with her Cuban-born husband by her side in a Swiss clinic which helps patients die at a time of their own choosing. But under British law, anyone who assists another person commit suicide – for example, by helping them travel to a suicide clinic – is at risk of criminal prosecution and up to 14 years' imprisonment.

Ms Purdy, and hundreds of terminally ill people like her, believe the law is depriving her of the comfort and solace of the man she loves at the time when she needs him the most. If the law can't be changed, then she asks for the right to know how the law is enforced in these kind of cases; she wishes to die knowing her husband will not be prosecuted.

Ms Purdy first met Omar Puente, 46, in a Singapore bar in 1995, just as she was first experiencing the early symptoms of a progressive form of multiple sclerosis. He was playing violin with a Cuban salsa band and she had been assigned to write a magazine review of the performance. "I think he was told by the band leader to be nice to me," she told The Independent yesterday.

"We soon started dating and a few weeks later I returned to England, when the family doctor diagnosed me as suffering from MS. We have been together ever since. Omar jokes that he has only ever known the MS Debbie, not the healthy Debbie."

The High Court judicial review to force the Director of Public Prosecutions to declare his policy on prosecuting assisted suicide cases begins on 2 October. Ms Purdy will be represented by David Pannick QC, a leading expert in public law and human rights.

It has just emerged that 650 British citizens have now signed up with Dignitas, the Zurich clinic which helps terminally ill patients end their lives in comfort and dignity abroad.

Many British Dignitas members wish to know whether or not their relatives will be liable for prosecution under the Suicide Act 1961 if they accompany them to the clinic or assist in any way with their travel arrangements.

The uncertainty of not knowing what risks her husband faces under British law has caused Ms Purdy great anxiety. "I can't let him travel with me to Switzerland because that might be construed as assisting me in my death," she said. "He says he is prepared to face jail if it means he could do something to stop making my life unbearable."

As a younger woman, Ms Purdy enjoyed travelling the world working as a dancer, waitress and writer. "I learnt to ski and waterski and I loved throwing myself out of aeroplanes," she said. Today she is confined to a wheelchair and has trouble taking a sip of water: "I'm much more frightened of choking to death or being in extreme pain than dying early," she said.

Ms Purdy first knew something was wrong when she went dancing with friends at a Yorkshire nightclub. "It was like dancing in sneakers with chewing gum on. My feet were moving very slowly and I didn't know why... At first the doctors said that it was depression after the death of my mother."

By the time Ms Purdy returned to Singapore to join Mr Puente, she had sought a second doctor's opinion which confirmed her worst fears. "I rang the Spanish embassy to ask what the Spanish for MS was so that I could telephone Omar and tell him what I had," she said. "I didn't know what he would think, how could I? But when I arrived at the airport, he was waiting for me."

Mr Puente asked her to move in with the band and for the next two years she travelled all over Asia with them. "Whenever anyone booked us, the band always said I was part of the deal."

But Ms Purdy's health was rapidly deteriorating and she decided to return home to Bradford. "I asked Omar if he would give England a try. He came for a month and got to know a Bradford salsa band. Although he finds the weather too cold and wet, he likes the people very much. Omar decided to stay and in 1998 we were married."

The couple are still together today. When Mr Puente's mother died, his wife was there to help him through it. Now Ms Purdy, the youngest of five siblings, says the time is fast approaching when she will have to choose the way she ends her own life.

In the past six years, nearly 100 British people have chosen to end their lives with Dignitas. Now, 40 relatives of former Dignitas patients have submitted witness statements to the High Court in support of Ms Purdy's case.

The charity Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for a law that will permit the assisted death of terminally ill adults at a time of their choosing, is also backing the High Court action. Its chief executive, Sarah Wootton, says the rate of inquiries from people wishing to follow the Dignitas route has increased over the past year. In the past fortnight she said she had been contacted by two men, one suffering from advanced leukaemia, who both wanted advice. She described them both as in the advanced stages of arranging their own deaths.

Although nobody has been prosecuted for providing assistance to a relative who used Dignitas, Ms Purdy believes her husband faces a great risk. "He is black, foreign and has very little money – that's not a great thing to be today," she said. "After I have gone I don't want him to fall foul of the law for being the wrong colour, from the wrong country and from the wrong class."

Assisted suicide


In 2002 the Dutch government became the first to introduce an assisted dying law. The courts permit about 3,500 cases a year. All patients must have an incurable condition.


The only country to permit non-Swiss residents to take advantage of its assisted dying code. The law makes clear that a person can assist another's suicide providing they act out of the highest sense of morality. But voluntary euthanasia is still forbidden in Switzerland.


The Belgium Act on Euthanasia was passed in May 2002. Patients have to be in a "futile medical condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated".


The latest country to bring in an assisted dying bill, which is expected to come into force this year. The law was passed by a majority of just four.


In 2006 the US Supreme Court upheld a law allowing doctors in Oregon to help terminally ill patients to die. Justices voted by 6 to 3 to back the law.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world