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Arrested for Showing Compassion

Four policemen came to my home in Surrey, England, on 12 December 2003 to arrest me for conspiring to assist a suicide (which never happened). I believe I am possibly the only physician ever to have been arrested for such an offence.

Two of these policemen were from the Isle of Man (the other two were from my local police station), because this story begins on that island. The Isle of Man lies between England and Ireland. With a population of only 76,000, it is a semi-autonomous territory which has its own currency, stamps, passports and, until recently, its own airline. While it relies on the UK for its defence, its parliament, the Tynwald, can pass its own internal laws.

In 1998, when I was the Chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (of England and Wales), I visited the Isle of Man to meet the VES members living there. Among them were Patrick and Pat Kneen: he was a farmer with an extensive Manx background. In late 2002, Patrick developed symptoms of prostate cancer. As his disease progressed, he conceived the idea of starting a campaign to get the Tynwald to legalize physician-assisted dying. A small local committee was formed, a web site was created, and articles and letters began appearing in the island newspaper.

Political development

A major development occurred in May 2003 when the Tynwald established a Select Committee to consider changing the law. Early last year, as I was the VES Chairman again, I had renewed my contacts with Patrick Kneen. And, in September, as his health was deteriorating, I visited him. We discussed the campaign: but, also, we spoke frankly about the options he had as his death approached. These included—a final stay in his local hospice; terminal sedation from his own physician at home; flying to Zurich where Dignitas could assist him commit suicide; or a medical friend illegally giving him a lethal dose of pills to swallow.

In mid-October, Pat Kneen telephoned me to ask if I would provide Patrick with suitable medication for him to commit suicide. I agreed. I was responding to his carefully considered request for assisted suicide, and he had become a friend who I greatly admired for the campaign he had started.

However, when I arrived on the Isle of Man two days later, I discovered that it was too late to help him. His condition had rapidly deteriorated. Now, he could hardly move his arms and he was retching easily. It was emotional saying “goodbye” to him. Later that day, his own physician put him into a diamorphine-induced coma, and, never regaining ­consciousness, Patrick died after another four days. He was buried in a cardboard coffin in a field near his home.

Two weeks later, Pat wrote a letter to the local newspaper describing how her ­husband had died, adding that he would have preferred an assisted suicide to terminal sedation. Also, she wrote that “Our doctor friend in England, who was prepared to offer him assisted dying, came over”. Although this letter was not published, it found its way to the local police.

After two weeks, Pat Kneen was arrested for conspiring to bring about Patrick’s suicide. Eventually, the Isle of Man police traced me and this led to my arrest in mid-December. Both of us were placed on bail until February 13th. Although the police had a search warrant when they came to my home, they were content to take away the papers I gave them (I had kept a detailed dairy of Patrick’s campaign and the last weeks of his life) together with the contents of two drawers in my desk containing my main VES and World Federation files, and the hard-drive of my computer.

Also, upon their request, I gave them the unused tablets, which I had obtained for Patrick. All that happened on December 12th is still very clear to me—being arrested in my dressing-gown; having a policeman watch me while I shaved; being booked at the police stations in Surrey and on the Isle of Man (helping one policeman to spell “conspiracy”); sitting in a cell at both locations (less graffiti in the second cell); being escorted on to the plane (handcuffs were considered unnecessary); and having my rights explained to me (from being allowed to make one telephone call to having access to a toilet).

Police cell, then Hilton

I was regularly offered tea or coffee, and dinner could have been fish and chips. Perhaps because I was a (retired) physician, and also due to the nature of my “crime”, the police were extremely polite and professional.

I was questioned for two hours. Although I could have had a lawyer present, to advise me, I refused this possibility as I wanted to be completely honest in describing how I was ­prepared to have helped Patrick in October. I openly admitted that, had I assisted him to commit suicide, I would have ­confessed to the local police the same day—thus, provoking a legal test case. At the end of this interrogation, I was placed on bail. It was now too late to get a plane back to England. I was offered the choice of a cell for the night or a room at the local Hilton, where the police had a special rate—not a difficult decision.

The day after my arrest, December 13th, without consulting anyone, I e-mailed the VES Board, explained what had happened to me, and resigned as Chairman. The next day, the Sunday Telegraph carried the exclusive story of my arrest—top of the front page—under the headline ”Police seize euthanasia campaigner over suicide conspiracy”. Soon, the rest of the media picked up the story.

In all of these reports, I admitted my “guilt” and wondered how “the law will handle this situation because, although I had planned to break the law, there had not been any ­suicide”. I had hoped that I could have remained on the VES Board, as an ordinary member, but, as two-thirds of my fellow directors were opposed to my plan to help a terminally ill friend and campaigning colleague, I was forced to resign.

FATE takes a hand

Fortunately, Friends At The End (FATE), in Scotland, quickly co-opted me to its Council in early January. During the ­following weeks, it was wonderful to get many telephone calls, letters, e-mails and cards from throughout the UK (especially from VES members), and from around the world, expressing support and encouragement.

The arrests of Mrs. Kneen and myself have helped the campaign on the Isle of Man to change the law. In early January, a telephone survey of 500 local residents now showed a 75% support for legalized assisted suicide. And, in the Tynwald one-third of its members were in favor, one-third was opposed, and the remaining one-third refused to say how they would react.

As February 13 approached, I was increasingly certain that I would be formally charged on that day, and then be told when the court case would begin. But, suddenly, without any warning, on the 12th, Mrs. Kneen and myself were told that “no further action” would be taken.

Various attempts by local lawyers, journalists and friends to get an official explanation for this last-minute decision were unsuccessful. Now, looking back, it seems that the most likely reason was that the Isle of Man legal authorities concluded that a court case would have generated further media attention to the renewed campaign, now headed by Pat Kneen and Patrick’s friends, to change the law, and this they wanted to avoid.