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Humanist subjected to six-month investigation over assisted death

Sharon Johnston (left) with Sue Lawford (right) at Dignitas

Humanists UK can now disclose that one of their members was earlier this year arrested at 5.30 am, put in a cell and held for 19 hours, and then subjected to a six-month police investigation, for escorting a woman to receive a medically assisted death in Switzerland.

The person she assisted was 60-year-old Sharon Johnston from Cardigan, who became tetraplegic following a fall at her previous home in Aberystwyth. Sharon spoke publicly about her wish to have an assisted death in 2021 BBC documentary When Would You Want to Die? Humanists UK arranged her participation.

Sue Lawford, a retired NHS manager, originally from London and now living in Cardiff, says that the saga shows the urgent need to reform the UK’s assisted dying laws.

Sue accompanied Sharon on 14 February to Heathrow Airport, en route to Dignitas in Switzerland. On the way to the airport Sharon was contacted by Dyfed Powys Police and Social Services several times; she reassured both that she was okay.

Sue accompanied Sharon to Dignitas to provide support. When Swiss Police arrived at Dignitas, Sue and Sharon reassured them and they were satisfied there was no illegal activity.  They left without taking any action. Sharon then had a calm, peaceful death early on the morning of 15 February. Her last words were: ‘This is a lovely feeling.’

The same day, Sue returned home to Cardiff. On 16 February at 5.30 am she was woken by the Police. Sue was arrested for assisting a suicide and was placed in the back of a police van and driven to Cardiff Bay Police Station. Meanwhile, police officers searched her house for over four hours. They seized her phone, electronic devices, passport, and documents relating to her work. They also took away electronic devices belonging to her husband, who had no connection whatsoever with the case.

Sue was kept in a police cell for 16 hours, before being interrogated by Dyfed Powys Police, with a duty solicitor in attendance. After over 19 hours in custody, she was released ‘pending investigation’. That investigation was dropped after six and a half months, due to ‘evidential difficulties’. Sue says being under arrest for such a long time was detrimental to her mental health.

Her possessions, and those of her husband, were only returned at the end of the investigation.

Sue Lawford said:

‘The entire situation caused immense stress and heartache for Sharon on an already difficult journey. It has caused me immense stress and anxiety since our return. The BBC had filmed an entire documentary on Sharon, whose decision was as clear as day.

‘A change in the law in the UK is long overdue. And it shouldn’t be limited to the terminally ill. Sharon’s situation was intolerable, yet could have continued for many years, and there are countless others like her without the means to end their lives on their own terms.’

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, said:

‘The ordeal that Sharon and Sue had to go through just to comply with Sharon’s clear wish is totally unacceptable. The fact that a humanist volunteer – an upstanding member of her community who specialises in helping others in times of need – was subjected to such ill treatment makes it all the more outrageous.

‘People who are terminally or incurably suffering should be able to have a calm, peaceful death on their own terms and in their own country. No-one should have to experience what happened in this case.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Nathan Stilwell at nathan@humanists.uk or phone 07456200033.

Sue Lawford is available for interview upon request.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign to legalise assisted dying in the UK.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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