‘I will probably not be given the chance to die in my favourite place’: Esther Rantzen on the right to choose a good death

<span>Esther Rantzen, 83: ‘I envy my dog, gently put down surrounded by his loving family.’</span><span>Photograph: Cheese Scientist/Alamy</span>
Esther Rantzen, 83: ‘I envy my dog, gently put down surrounded by his loving family.’Photograph: Cheese Scientist/Alamy

Twenty years ago there were three deaths in my family. We lost my mother, my husband and our rescue dog in a few short months. Looking back, now that I have had a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer and am having to face the reality of my own mortality, the most peaceful, pain-free and easiest death was our dog’s, who was gently put down surrounded by his loving family. I envy him. The current state of our criminal law means that merciful end is denied me. I know we love our dogs in this country, but why, at the very end of our lives, do we treat pets so much better than we treat people?

I am told assisted dying inspires more letters to newspapers than any other issue. A recent Westminster Hall debate was attended by so many MPs that they had to find extra chairs. The speeches were passionate and moving. Many described witnessing the painful death of someone close to them. But it was only a debate, no possibility of a vote at the end, or any change in the law. It resulted from a petition I helped to spearhead, along with the campaigning charity Dignity in Dying. For their own sake, and for the sake of those they love, 200,000 signatories called for a change in the law to legalise assisted dying in carefully regulated circumstances, for terminally ill people with six months or less to live. I believe the time for that change has come.

Personally, I have been aware of this issue for decades. Both my late husband, documentary-maker Desmond Wilcox, and I have made programmes about it over the years. We both wanted to be able to choose a good death rather than have our last days spent in acute pain and distress. So it was natural for me, when I was diagnosed a year ago, to join Dignitas. When I decide my life is no longer worth living, I will have to travel to Zurich to die, which will cost at least £15,000, so it is not a solution available to everyone. Going to Switzerland is the only way, given our current law which criminalises assisted dying, that I can face my own death with confidence that it will be pain-free, knowing that I can decide if my life has become unendurable and I want it to end. But I cannot ask my close family to come to Switzerland to support me, as I would wish, because that would in principle leave them open to investigation by British police on a possible manslaughter charge. That has happened to bereaved partners and grieving families. Which is why I have described the law as it stands as being a cruel mess.

Since I went public with my decision, I have received many messages of support from people describing how helpless they felt watching someone they love dying painfully. Not because palliative care was not available, but because even the best care cannot always guarantee a peaceful, pain-free death. One of the speakers in the Westminster Hall debate suggested that doctors were once able, discreetly and mercifully, to put a suffering patient’s life to an end without risking being prosecuted or struck off. But since the murders committed by Harold Shipman in the mid-90s, medical regulations have tightened and made that impossible. So even doctors may feel helpless in the face of a patient’s intolerable suffering. That may be one reason the medical profession has stopped opposing any change in the law.

Although every survey shows the public supports legalising assisted dying, I believe everyone has the right to oppose the change. No doctor should be compelled to kill me, if that is against their beliefs. But I am relieved the British Medical Association has withdrawn its opposition to a change in the law since the last Commons debate in 2015, and its members can now make their own choice. I also understand opposition from some people with religious beliefs that would forbid it, but I think they should be honest and declare that is the reason, and not impose their faith on others. I do not understand opposition from some disabled people who feel their lives would be threatened by a change in the law. I assume they think there is a slippery slope, that the law may be widened to include people with disabilities. But that has not happened elsewhere, and the reform proposed by Dignity in Dying in this country would legalise assisted death only for patients with a terminal illness and six months or less to live, who ask for their suffering to be ended. That will not affect disabled people, unless they become terminally ill and are in so much pain and distress that they ask for help to die. In which case, shouldn’t they have the right to choose? Just as I should?

My own cancer seems to be responding to one of the new targeted drugs, so I am about to celebrate an 84th birthday I didn’t imagine I’d reach. But the oncologist has been clear this is delay, not cure. Only the next scan will tell me if the drug is still working. So in the background of my life is the knowledge that I may not be as lucky as my dog. Almost every obituary claims that someone has “died peacefully at home”. I’d like to believe them. All the surveys show the vast majority of the public want that. I, too, would love to die at home, surrounded by my family. With Jersey and the Isle of Man already bringing in new laws, it feels like a tipping point – Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have both agreed to make time after the election for a Commons debate. Even if that results in a change in the law, it looks as though it may come too late for me. I will probably not be given the chance to die in my favourite place, my New Forest cottage. Never mind. Even if that choice is not possible for me in my lifetime, I hope it will be possible for you in yours. It is our life. It will be our death. It should be our choice.