In 2015 the U.K. Parliament rejected an assisted-suicide bill.
LONDON — Family members of an 80-year-old woman in England are advocating for legalized assisted suicide after the woman was found not guilty by a U.K. court in an apparent “mercy killing” of her husband.
Mavis Eccleston, 80, was accused of killing her husband Dennis, 81, with a lethal dose of prescription medicine.
Prosecutors claimed that Mavis had done so without Dennis’ knowledge or permission.
But, according to the BBC, Mavis told jurors at the Stafford Crown Court that she and her husband had both intended to take their lives with the medication and that they had decided to do so after Dennis’ diagnosis of terminal cancer.
The couple were found in their apartment by family members on Feb. 19, 2018, after they had taken the drugs. The couple were rushed to the hospital and given an antidote to the medication. Mavis survived; Dennis did not.
After the hearing, Joy Munns, a daughter of Dennis and Mavis, called for the legalization of assisted suicide “so that dying people aren’t forced to suffer, make plans in secret or ask loved ones to risk prosecution by helping them,” the BBC reported.
Both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are illegal under U.K. law. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, euthanasia could be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, while physician-assisted suicide carries with it a maximum punishment of 14 years’ imprisonment.
In 2015 the U.K. Parliament rejected a bill that would have legalized assisted suicide for patients with a terminal diagnosis, by a vote of 330 to 118.
The U.K.’s Suicide Act 1961 was challenged in High Court in 2017 by a terminally ill man, Noel Conway, who wanted a doctor to be able to prescribe him a lethal dose. His case was dismissed.
Some disability groups in the U.K. and throughout the world have argued against legalized physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, saying that such legislation would put vulnerable populations such as the elderly, physically disabled and mentally ill at risk for coercion.
The Catholic Church teaches that assisted suicide and euthanasia are a violation of the dignity of all human life, and therefore morally impermissible.
“Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states.
“Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded,” it adds.
The Catechism similarly states that suicide or the cooperation in suicide is morally unacceptable, though it notes: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
In the recent U.K. hearing, Mavis told jurors that her husband wanted to end his life after receiving a terminal diagnosis of bowel cancer. He had stopped treatment except for pain-management medication and he had reportedly talked about going to Switzerland to take advantage of legal assisted suicide in the country.
The couple decided to end their lives together with a lethal dose of medication and reportedly wrote a note to their family explaining their decision.
According to the BBC, Mavis said she handed the medicine to her husband before taking it herself and that Dennis “knew full well” what he was doing as he gave himself the medicine.
Mavis said after she took the medicine herself, she kissed her husband and covered him before lying down, and remembers nothing else until she woke up in the hospital.
One of the couple’s children said outside of the courthouse that while they were “grateful and relieved” for the court’s ruling of not guilty, they said that if there “had been an assisted-dying law here in the U.K. our dad would have been able to have the choice to end his suffering with medical support and with his loved ones around him.”
The case is similar to a 2017 case in which an English chemist was cleared after administering lethal drugs to his 85-year-old father, who had reportedly wanted to die. A judge at the time ruled that the chemist’s actions “were acts of pure compassion and mercy.”