A TV Confession Reignites Britain's Euthanasia Debate

  • Share
  • Read Later

British television reporter Ray Gosling, in Nottingham, England

Not since Robin Hood has a local hero given the Nottinghamshire authorities quite such a headache as the one induced by TV presenter and resident Ray Gosling. In a BBC program broadcast on Feb. 15, Gosling confessed to a killing. "Maybe this is the time to share a secret that I've kept for quite a long time," said Gosling, filmed strolling among the weathered headstones at a cemetery for a documentary about attitudes toward mortality. "I killed someone once. He was a young chap. He'd been my lover. He got AIDS."

Gosling, an award-winning journalist whose rumpled persona has endeared him to generations of viewers, went on to recount "a hot afternoon" when he smothered the unidentified man in his hospital bed. In some accounts — Gosling retold the story in a number of interviews with British news organizations — a doctor helpfully absented himself so Gosling could do the deed. "Sometimes you have to do brave things and you have to say — to use Nottingham language — bugger the law," the presenter declared in one interview.

The law has responded. "A 70-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder following comments on the BBC's Inside Out program on Monday evening," said Nottinghamshire police in a statement issued Wednesday.

People in England and Wales who assist suicides face jail sentences of up to 14 years under a 1961 law that campaigners have long sought to see updated and clarified. Since the Dignitas clinic opened in Switzerland in 1998, 123 Britons have traveled there to die. The friends and relatives who accompanied them have sometimes been investigated but never prosecuted. Last year, a multiple sclerosis sufferer named Debbie Purdy, concerned that her husband risked prison if he took her to Dignitas, won a case forcing Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer to make clear the circumstances that would spark legal action. Starmer published interim guidelines last September, highlighting the likelihood of prosecution in cases in which the deceased was under 18, was mentally incapable of making the decision to die, or had not expressed a clear wish to do so. The final guidelines, compiled after a public consultation, will be issued on Feb. 25.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of the campaign group Dignity in Dying, says such clarification is helpful but that the law "needs to be reviewed." Gosling's case, she says, "points to a bigger picture of people being forced to take the law into their hands."

Wootton is skeptical about Gosling's suggestion that doctors encouraged him to kill. Gosling himself was vague on the details of a supposed pact with his lover. "The issue of consent is a big one, and he wasn't clear on that point," says Wootton. "He mentioned a pact, but he didn't say whether the man asked for help then and there for him to do it."

The fuzziness of Gosling's tale, along with his repeated insistence that his victim was not his official partner but — using another phrase that might be heard in Nottingham and other parts of England — his "bit on the side," makes him a less than ideal celebrity figurehead for the right-to-die movement. In fact, Gosling seemed determined to avoid such a role, telling interviewers he wasn't calling for a change in the law. "He's an independent man. He's quite idiosyncratic; some might say eccentric. I don't think he wants to ally himself with any cause," says Wootton.

A prominent figure who has allied himself with calls to legalize assisted suicide proved scarcely less controversial when he weighed in on the debate last month. In an interview with the Sunday Times, novelist Martin Amis warned that longer lifespans would create "a population of demented very old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafés and shops" and called for "a booth on every corner where you could get a martini and a medal."

The comedic turn of phrase may have distracted from a serious point: under current laws, assisted suicide is really only an option for the better-off, who can afford to pay the travel costs and Dignitas fees. Helping someone die remains illegal in England and Wales. Kay Gilderdale was prosecuted for assisting in the 2008 suicide of her daughter, who suffered from chronic fatigue and had previously tried to kill herself. Gilderdale was given a conditional discharge last month, in a verdict that reflected unease over whether the current law provides justice.

Legislative change may be closer in Scotland. The Health and Sport Committee of the Scottish Parliament is set to consider the "end-of-life choices" bill tabled by Margo MacDonald, an independent member of Parliament who is suffering from Parkinson's disease. But the debate on these issues looks set to continue on both sides of the border — and with growing intensity. Sir Terry Pratchett, author of Discworld, a best-selling series of science-fiction novels, received an Alzheimer's diagnosis in 2007 and gave a lecture this month proposing as Britain's answer to death panels "a strictly nonaggressive tribunal that would establish the facts of a case well before assisted death."

It's hard to imagine Gosling submitting to such a panel or any authority, except perhaps the highest. "If there's a heaven and [the dead lover] is looking down, he'll be proud of me," said Gosling, who declared before his arrest that he would not cooperate with an investigation. Without the dead man's name, date of death, a location or a body, that investigation is unlikely to prove easy.