A healthy woman has ended her life at a suicide clinic in Switzerland rather than face old age. A palliative care nurse during her working life, she had previously said that she thought old people were “a burden on society” and that old age is “awful”.
Gill Pharaoh, 75, took her own life at LifeCircle, a clinic in Basel on the 21st July. She was accompanied by her long term partner John Southall, enjoying a meal with him on the banks of the Rhine the evening before. On the day of her death, Ms Pharaoh, who had no serious health conditions and who took no medication, presented herself to the clinic in high spirits, joking with doctors before allowing them to kill her.
“The whole evening was very tranquil and enjoyable,” said John. “I think it is what we both wanted. Gill had been thinking about it for years and I had no intention of spoiling it by getting emotional and heavy.”
Her case is likely to spark renewed debate about assisted dying in the UK. A spokesman for Care Not Killing, which campaigns against assisted dying, said of Ms Pharaoh’s death: “This is another deeply troubling case and sends out a chilling message about how society values and looks after elderly people in the UK.”
Speaking to The Times, Mr Southall suggested that more relaxed laws on assisted dying might have meant that Ms Pharoah would still be alive. “She was terrified of having a stroke because she had a close friend who always was a member of Exit [the voluntary euthanasia society] but who had a stroke and was then bed bound for ten years in a very pathetic state that she herself would have hated and Gill hated to see.
“If we had laws in this country where you could write an advance directive and say ‘If I have a stroke that disables me, I would like medical assistance to die’, she wouldn’t have had the fear of the stroke. I am sure she would have been happy to stay around for longer. She couldn’t do that and therefore wasn’t prepared to take the risk.”
Following her death, Mr Southall called Ms Pharaoh’s two children, Caron, a nurse who lives in America, and Mark, who lives in Australia, and then flew home. All three supported Ms Pharaoh in her decision, although they did not agree with it. Caron in particular is said to have found it particularly difficult emotionally. A humanist memorial service organised by Ms Pharaoh will take place later this month.
Ms Pharaoh, the author of two books on caring and nursing, was an outspoken advocate of assisted dying. In February last year she wrote to The Times in support of limiting expensive drugs for elderly patients, saying:
“The fact is that many old people are a burden on society. Like all nurses I have cared for the elderly as well as I could, but there were many occasions when I wondered why we were doing it. People who cannot accept this argument should work for a few months in a care home where many patients are demented, incontinent, unable to care for themselves, and have no visitors. I would like to be able to apply for a prescription which could be used if I ever feel like a quiet and peaceful exit before things get too bad.”
In an interview before her death, she told the Sunday Times: “I have looked after people who are old, on and off, all my life. I have always said, ‘I am not getting old. I do not think old age is fun.’ I know that I have gone just over the hill now. It is not going to start getting better. I do not want people to remember me as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley.
“I have got so many friends with partners who, plainly, are a liability. I would rather go out when I am not quite at a peak. A lot of people are very good until they are 70 and then they start sloping off a bit.”
And in a blog post entitled My Last Word, written two months before her death, Ms Pharaoh expressed her belief, formed by her experiences as a palliative care nurse, that old age was “generally awful.”
“If you work in a nursing home and you have people who are incontinent, who use bad language, who walk around the rooms and just take things, it is very difficult. It is not a job you enjoy,” she said.
“I just felt it was so bleak and so sad. We all did what we could but, for many of those old people, there wasn’t a lot you could do. We do not look at the reality. Generally, it is awful.”
A study last year found that more than 100 people had travelled to Switzerland from the UK to take their own lives between 2008 and 2012, spending thousands of pounds for the services of suicide clinics.
Lord Falconer, whose private members bill on Assisted Dying ran out of time in the last Parliament said in June “You should be able to have a prescription you can take if you have less than six months to live. This is an issue the public have a real interest in.”
However, evidence from the Netherlands, which introduced assisted dying a decade ago, points a system which is “way out of control”. Cases of people with severe mental illness tripled between 2012 and 2013 alone, while figures released in January revealed that 650 babies were being killed each year under the laws.