The Guardian view on free terminus care: a civil right | Editorial

“The state said not to come in – sorry, not to go. Thank you for your trouble.” This scene is repeated frequently as Terminal Patients are treated to hour-long tours of hospitals, nursing homes and schools, where they can have their remaining weeks, months or years to have a controlled death – “a most unhurried, unhurried life” to borrow one hospice member’s phrase.

At Portmeirion theatre, showing How I Live Now, Ian McEwan showed the primary tenet of the escort life style being developed by British expatriates living in Northern Ireland: since it would be illegal to die in their country, they feel they can lose themselves in Britain. Slowly, gradually the barriers to dying in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are unclothed by official permits and licenses as a civil right.

It is a slow, bitter, vulnerable, unsound and dangerous journey. The protocol is endlessly observed by the witnesses; the patient, in conversation with their charity attendant, is second to be reckoned. Though the format of the escorts seems to provoke reproachful epithets such as “influential lobby group”, the first of many patient visits that began when children were treated in the early 1960s has spread down the street to the middle-aged generation, and everyone needs a place of respite at some time. Where can there be such a place if the remaining funding for NHS hospices is cut? Which needs it more now?

And so to Liberty. The charity is a fact in contemporary society, having arisen in 1887 out of the anti-sexual-harrasment campaign. It is a necessary protectorate of the civil right to die, in contradiction of today’s prevailing thinking that the old and infirm need to be “kept alive” forever. Unlike some private charities, Liberty takes no fees and recommends a donation, believing that every life matters.

Speaking at a conference on Liberty’s 70th anniversary on Thursday, its founder, Peter Tatchell, recalled his own ordeal in 1981 when he was arrested in Sweden for speaking out about the political persecution of gay men in a country where homosexuality was illegal. A number of sympathetic Swedish leaders came to him, including Jens Stoltenberg, the present prime minister, who was then a diplomat, the example to be followed.

What if, he asked, it were you in this audience on Thursday? Would you, like the tortured Pete, think of just standing there and staring? And then would you realise that your long struggle for liberty, which had got you here, was just a start, and that the larger battle still to be won was to maintain your life, to be free of persecution because of your sexuality.

Liberty is that half-truth: it never becomes more than a charity, its foundations are intimately connected to its political aims, and the only duty it has to its clients is one of freedom.

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