Edward Turner: We held her hands as she slipped away

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In January 2006 my mother, Dr Anne Turner, died peacefully at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich from a lethal dose of barbiturates. My two sisters and I held her hands at her bedside as she slipped into unconsciousness.

She was suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), one of the very worst degenerative neurological illnesses, which could ultimately have left her completely paralysed – unable even to blink to communicate – and effectively trapped in her own body.

She had nursed my father through a similar illness to a miserable death a few years earlier and had been in no doubt what lay ahead of her. She was determined to avoid the same fate.

In October 2005 she attempted suicide at home, by taking an overdose of pills and attempting to suffocate herself with a plastic bag. The aftermath was horrific; if she was going to die, it couldn't be like this.

We helped my mother to contact Dignitas, as she found it difficult to make herself understood on the phone, and made all the arrangements. We were vaguely aware that what we were doing might be illegal, but were clear in our own minds that we had to do what we determined was morally right and be at our mother's side as she died.

On our return to the UK we were contacted by a local detective who, very gently, apologetically and sympathetically, explained that he had to investigate, as our mother's case had attracted a lot of publicity and there was some pressure to prosecute. I wrote a full statement detailing the events leading up to my mother's death. A week later, the detective said that he had consulted the Association of Chief Police Officers, who were all struggling in a new legal grey area; they had concluded that simply pushing a patient's wheelchair didn't constitute aiding and abetting, but that physically administering a lethal drug did. He confirmed that no further action would be taken.

Perhaps sadder for me was to hear from Ludwig Minelli, the lawyer who runs Dignitas, that another English woman was to die in their clinic the following week. She would be making her final journey alone, her two adult children too scared of the consequences of a prosecution under the Suicide Act.