When I first heard this story on the news today, my heart sank: someone accused of murder for the "act of mercy" of suffocating her bed-bound father whose MS had become "intolerable" and who no longer wanted to go on.
Claire Darbyshire killed her father as part of an apparent suicide pact, leaving a handwritten note next to the body of her father as she headed to Dover with the intention of throwing herself off the cliffs.
“Dad couldn’t go on any more being bed-bound. He asked me to help him end it. Now I have to end it too as my action is claimed as a crime. If it was an animal then you would stop its suffering, but when it comes to a member of your own species you want to prolong the suffering as long as possible. We have the cheek to call ourselves civilised. Don’t waste your time looking for me. My phone call to the district nurse was my last action.”
Darbyshire was found guilty of murder (not manslaughter or assisting a suicide) and sentenced to four years. As the judge said, “You gave evidence in the case and I accept your evidence that your father did raise the question of ending his own life and he wanted to do that and wanted your help to do so.”... but it was an unlawful killing behind closed doors and there can be no defence to murder under those circumstances.
This isn't an open and shut case, and much (but not all) of the coverage seems to centre around the fact that Claire Darbyshire is pre-operative transgender, which obviously makes the whole thing more interesting to the Daily Mail. It just makes me sad to think that someone, aged 67, and their daughter who was caring for them, may have both reached a point where their lives no longer seemed worth living.
Can you imagine that? Just think about it for a moment; suffering so much that death seems like a release. I don't know about you, but it makes me feel profoundly sad thinking that anyone feels like that, or watches someone they love feeling like that.
I'm reminded of the case of Debbie Purdy, a primary-progressive MS sufferer, who campaigned tirelessly for the right to die and to have her partner protected from the threat of prosecution for helping her, even if that was only to accompany her to Dignitas. If you remember, the Law Lords eventually ruled in her favour in 2009. There was a lot of coverage of this at the time, and I wrote about it myself.
As Matthew Parris said at the time:
"I can’t tell you how simple I find these arguments: so simple that I’ve hardly bothered to write about the issue. Suicide is the greatest of human freedoms, underwriting all the others, for it gives us the possibility of defying every thing and every one there is. The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final raspberry. The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy. That we can let go whenever we want is for me the deepest sort of thrill. People should be able to choose. Obviously. And if they choose the end but seek help with the means, they should be able to. Obviously. End of argument."
Assisted suicide, of course, is a complex issue. What on earth is the law supposed to do when a daughter smothers her father and says it was a mercy killing requested by the victim?
Parris actually went on to say in the same article that he was opposed to legalising assisted suicide - on the grounds that this means that someone has to officially decide who can, and who cannot, die:
"It is one thing for the State to decline, at its discretion, to prosecute someone who has killed without authority. It is quite another thing for the State to issue an authority to kill. We do best, I think, to stay on that first, more limited, ground."
...and so Darbyshire must serve her four years. A lenient sentence for a murder, perhaps, but a custodial sentence nonetheless.
Debbie Purdy died in 2014.
As someone who has MS - even one who is currently training to run another marathon - I find this quote from her last interview profoundly depressing:
In her final interview with BBC Look North, Ms Purdy said the painful realities of her condition meant her life was "unacceptable". She said: "It's painful and it's uncomfortable and it's frightening and it's not how I want to live. "If somebody could find a cure for MS I would be the first person in line. It's not a matter of wanting to end my life, it's a matter of not wanting my life to be this."
I do my best not to think about what might lie in my future. That's the path to madness because no one knows what the future holds, whether they have MS or not..... but at the same time, it's impossible for me to read stories like this and not feel a pang about a possible future. How could you not?