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

Netherlands

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.

Switzerland

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.

Belgium

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".

Luxembourg

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.

Oregon

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary